The “Top Five Cases” We Watched in 2019
As we kick off the new decade, we’re wrapping up the top five cases and topics of importance to executives and professionals from 2019:
In Calixto v. Coughlin, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court determined that an employer’s failure to provide “notice pay” (compensation paid in lieu of notice) did not violate the Wage Act. The Court observed that the employees were not required to – and, most importantly, did not – work for the notice pay, and so the monies at issue were not earned wages to which the Wage Act applied. However, the Court did not foreclose other avenues to recover the notice pay, and in fact, in Calixto, the plaintiffs recovered damages under the WARN Act, a federal law that regulates large-scale layoffs.
State wage and hour law permits employers to pay inside salespeople on a commission-only basis, so long as the employer guarantees at least the minimum wage for all regular hours worked. According to a decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Sullivan v. Sleepy’s, such commission-only arrangements are insufficient if the employees work more than forty hours in a given week.
In Sullivan, inside sales employees – paid on a commission-only basis – brought suit seeking additional pay for overtime worked ( i.e., each hour over forty hours in a given week). The employer pushed back, noting that each employee always earned weekly commissions equal to or greater than the minimum wage for each of the first forty-hours worked and one-and-a-half times the minimum wage for each hour over forty. The Court sided with the employees and rejected the employer’s attempt to retroactively re-characterize earned commissions as overtime pay. The Court noted that the employer’s position ran contrary to the purposes of the overtime statute – which includes encouraging the employment of more people, and the compensation of employees for the burden of a long workweek.
Discrimination in the workplace can take many forms and present itself in countless ways. Many people mistakenly believe that discrimination is not actionable until the discrimination has had a financial impact. A 2019 Supreme Judicial Court decision clarified that this is not true under Massachusetts’ anti-discrimination statute, Chapter 151B. In the case of Yee v. Massachusetts State Police, the Court considered what constitutes an “adverse employment action” and reinforced that discrimination claims are about more than just money.
In DaPrato v. Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, the Supreme Judicial Court made clear that employers should not be substituting their own prejudices for the opinions of medical professionals, and that even an allegedly “honest mistake” as to whether an employee was abusing medical leave by spending it on vacation, did not shield the employer from liability for retaliatory discharge. While the Court did recognize that an employer may consider whether an employee’s activities are inconsistent with the medically documented reasons for the leave, the Court also observed that “an employee recovering from a leg injury may sit with his leg raised by the sea while fully complying with FMLA requirements…”
In Parris v. Sheriff of Suffolk County, a group of union employees filed suit in court under the Massachusetts Wage Act, G.L. c. 149 § 148, seeking unpaid wages. The employer argued that the lawsuit must be dismissed because, among other things, the claims had to be brought as a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement, which – conveniently for the employer – did not provide employees with Wage Act remedies like treble damages. The Appeals Court disagreed, ruling that it is “beyond the union’s ability to bargain away” an individual’s right under the Wage Act to be “paid promptly the wages due to him or her.” As the Parris decision makes clear, courts do not hesitate to strike down efforts – however creative – to avoid the Wage Act’s strict requirements and penalties.