The Massachusetts legislature recently passed a law that clarified that its wage payment statute requires the mandatory award of triple damages when and employer fails to pay earned wages. An earlier decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had held that the triple damages provision of the statute was discretionary.
Our legislature should fall into line with the Massachusetts legislature and correct a similar ruling by our Supreme Court.
Our Minimum Wage Act provides that an employee who successfully sues an employer for unpaid wages …
“…may recover, in a civil action, twice the full amount of such wages, with costs and such reasonable attorney’s fees as may be allowed by the court,…”
Our Supreme Court and our Appellate Court have held that these double damages and attorneys fees are discretionary, not mandatory:
“[I]n an action for wages brought pursuant to General Statutes § 31-72, awards for double damages and attorney’s fees are inappropriate in the absence of the trial court’s finding of ‘bad faith, arbitrariness or unreasonableness.’ ” Matteson v. Great Eastern Development, Ltd., 18 Conn.App. 618, 621, 559 A.2d 1165 (1989), quoting Crowther v. Gerber Garment Technology, Inc., 8 Conn.App. 254, 265, 513 A.2d 144 (1986).”
Sansone v. Clifford, 219 Conn. 217, 229 (1991).
Nowhere in the statute are the words “bad faith, arbitrariness or unreasonableness.”
The effect of these holdings is that plaintiffs’ employment lawyers are dissuaded from taking small wage cases because they might not win their attorneys fees. Of course, employees are similarly dissuaded from hiring an attorney on an hourly basis to sue for a small wage claim because they might not win reimbursement of those fees.
Even the federal law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, provides more protection on this issue than we do. Under that law, attorneys’ fees are awarded to a prevailing employee without a showing of bad faith.
Our legislature should step up to the plate and fill this hole in Connecticut law. Our law is currently less supportive of an employee’s right to sue for unpaid wages than that of the federal government or of Massachusetts. A new law which clarifies that double damages and attorneys’ fees are mandatory is in order.