SJC Decides that Non-Exempt Employees Cannot Receive the Massachusetts Wage Payment Law Remedies for the Untimely Payment of FLSA Overtime

On April 14, 2022, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision holding that employees whose sole claim for untimely overtime wages rests on the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C., § 203, can only recover the remedies provided under the FLSA and cannot use the Massachusetts Wage Payment Law, G.L. c. 149, § 148, with its treble damages remedy. The decision in Devaney v. Zucchini Gold, LLC., No. 13176 (2022) therefore rejected the analysis in three decisions by judges of the federal district court for the District of Massachusetts which have ruled that the State law can be used to recover treble damages for unpaid overtime wages due under the FLSA. Since Devaney is a matter of the State’s highest court construing the scope of a Massachusetts statute, the SJC’s decision should control but there is some uncertainty because its ruling also involves interpretation of the federal statute.

Devaney involved a claim for tardily paid overtime wages brought by a group of three employees of a restaurant. The employees alleged violations of the FLSA but did not pursue a claim under the Massachusetts Overtime Law, G.L. c. 151, §1A, because that statute exempts restaurant workers from its overtime requirements. After the Superior Court found for the employees and used the Wage Payment Law to treble their damages and awarded attorney’s fees and costs, the restaurant appealed and the SJC took direct appellate review.

Generally, the Wage Payment Law provides more generous remedies than the FLSA and there are several key procedural differences between the two laws. The FLSA allows private actions by employees to recover unpaid overtime wages, liquidated damages in an equal amount if the employer acted in bad faith, and costs and attorney’s fees. The Wage Payment Law, on the other hand, provides to employees a private right of action and makes employers strictly liable for a mandatory award of treble damages for any lost wages, as well as attorneys’ fees. Given these differences, employees who are not exempt under the FLSA often try to use the Wage Act to receive higher recoveries even where their claim for overtime wages rests solely on the FLSA.

In Devaney, the SJC rejected this avenue, concluding that employees cannot recover treble damages under the Wage Payment Law where their claim is solely based on overtime owed under the FLSA. The Court reasoned that where the FLSA provides its own remedy, that conflicts with remedies under analogous state law claims and thus preempts them. Separately, the Court also clarified that the FLSA’s requirement of one and one-half times the employee’s FLSA “regular rate” of pay for overtime worked only results in damages equal to half the regular rate when employees have already been paid at the regular rate for the overtime hours.

Employers should be aware of the decision in Devaney because it clarifies the remedies that an employer will and will not be liable for if it pays employees late for overtime. While many private sector employers are subject to the Massachusetts Overtime Law and are therefore still subject to the Wage Payment Law’s mandatory treble damages provision, that statute does not apply to public sector employers. In this context, another federal judge in this district has ruled that the Wage Payment Law cannot be used as a remedy against public sector employers for FLSA overtime claims precisely because those employers are not subject to the analogous Massachusetts Overtime Law. McGrath v. City of Somerville, 419 F.Supp.3d 233 (D. Mass. 2019). In addition, although in Devaney the SJC did not specifically address when FLSA overtime wages must be paid in Massachusetts, that is generally required on the next pay day after the overtime has been earned.

Questions regarding compliance with the FLSA, the Wage Payment Law, and related provisions are often complex and fact specific. If you have such questions, please contact us. We are pleased to assist employers with FLSA and Wage Payment Law compliance.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.