KJC LAW FIRM attorneys Cook, Wilton, and Martin were collectively awarded five hundred thousand dollars in attorney’s fees for their work on behalf of Dr. Andrew Segal in the case of Segal v. Genitrix, Suffolk Superior Court C.A. No. 09-00776. Segal, a licensed medical doctor and inventor, managed a bio-tech research firm called Genitrix with his employer, H. Fiske Johnson, III, heir to the Johnson family fortune which includes products like Pledge, Ziploc bags, and Glade. Segal successfully proved at a jury trial in November, 2015 that Johnson intentionally and knowingly refused to pay Segal’s wages for three years. The trial judge held a second phase of the trial approximately one month later in which he considered whether the defendants should be required to pay punitive damages because their failure to pay wages was “outrageous.” Segal prevailed again and has been awarded nearly $1.2 million, which a Superior Court Judge described as “an enormous amount for a single-Plaintiff Wage Act case.”
The Massachusetts Wage Act imposes severe penalties on “unscrupulous “employers and entitles prevailing plaintiffs to reasonable attorney’s fees which must be approved by a Superior Court judge. In awarding attorney’s fees, the judge is allowed to consider the experience and skill of the attorneys, the results obtained at trial, and the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of their performance at trial. The judge is required to reduce the award so as not to allow for duplicative billing, and to ensure that the hourly rate awarded to each attorney is fair and reasonable. In this case, the judge wrote a glowing review of attorneys Cook, Wilton, and Martin when awarding what we believe to be one of the largest awards, if not the largest award, ever in a single-plaintiff Wage Act case.
Every employer and employee in Massachusetts should be aware of the “Wage Act,” also known as the Weekly Wage Law (c. 149, sec. 148 et seq.). The purpose of the Wage Act is to ensure that employees are promptly paid by their employers. The law includes harsh penalties for employers who fail to comply.
This simple notion – that employees should be paid for the work they do – has resulted in a surprising amount of litigation as employers, and their attorneys, scramble to avoid the penalties of their misconduct. Here are a few questions that often arise:
What are “wages”? This question appears simple but it can be difficult to answer. The Wage Act itself does not fully define what constitutes a wage. The term “wage” includes money paid by an employer to an employee in exchange for working. The Wage Act specifically includes “holiday” and “vacation” pay, as well as “tips.” The definition of wages, however, does not include severance pay, and does not include bonuses unless the bonus was non-discretionary. Commissions (such as sales commissions) are a separate category, but are still considered wages once they are “definitely determined” and “due and payable.” When in doubt, any moneys owed to an employee should be promptly paid by the employer.
Am I entitled to overtime? Employees must be classified as either “exempt” or “nonexempt,” a classification that has ramifications under both the Massachusetts employment laws and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. All employees are nonexempt unless they fall into certain categories, based on their job functions. In general, only executive, professional, and sales employees will be considered exempt, and employers must be very careful in making this determination. “Nonexempt” employees who are required (or permitted) to work more than 40 hours in a one week must be paid “time and a half” for all hours worked over 40. For example, if an employee earns $10/hour, then all hours after 40 in one week must be paid at the rate of $15/hour. Failing to pay overtime is a Wage Act violation.
Am I entitled to take a break during the work day? Massachusetts law requires that employees who work more than 6 consecutive hours in one day be afforded a 30-minute break. During that break, the employee should be allowed to leave the office and have no work responsibilities; if his movement is restricted in any way, or he is required to perform work during the meal-break period, then he must be compensated. Employees are permitted to waive the meal break requirement, but any waiver must be voluntary and, if the employee makes that waiver, they must be paid for that time. The statute that entitles employees to meal breaks is separate from the Wage Act, and employees are not entitled to sue employers under the separate, meal-break statute, which is enforced by the Attorney General.
Can my employer take deductions from my check? Generally, employers may only deduct taxes (federal and state) and a few other deductions that are required by law. In a circumstance where an employee owes money to an employer, the employer must not deduct what is owed from the paycheck. The law does allow for a “valid set-off” with respect to certain moneys owed, but that only applies to a few select circumstances.
What kind of damages could I be entitled to if I bring a Wage Act case? The Massachusetts legislature has taken a hard line on employer violations of the Wage Act. Failing to comply with the Wage Act can lead to mandatory triple damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees, which are intended to provide strong incentives to comply. In addition to being able to file a private lawsuit, an employee may also fill out a pre-printed form from the Massachusetts Attorney General to seek an investigation into Wage Act violations. Although the Attorney General receives many complaints and will not pursue every case, the office will often conduct an investigation, and an employer must be prepared to explain its wage payment processes.