Seyfarth Synopsis: A recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court limits the scope of the Wage Act to exclude sick time payments and potentially other types of contingent compensation.
The Massachusetts Wage Act has been a boon to plaintiffs, as it provides for automatic treble damages for late or unpaid wages. As a result, plaintiffs’ lawyers have sought to cram every form of compensation into the scope of law. A recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court seemingly curtails those efforts by limiting the scope of what is a wage under the Wage Act and the availability of triple damages. In that case, an employee manipulated the terms of his employer’s generous sick leave policy and then sought to claim that the employer’s late payment of over $46,000 in unused sick time entitled him to triple damages under the statute. Demonstrating that there is still justice in the world, the Court shut the door on that theory, holding that unused sick time payments do not count as “wages” under the Massachusetts Wage Act.
The case Mui v. Massachusetts Port Authority began when a Massport employee, Tze-Kit Mui, was indicted for attempted murder and arson. Not surprisingly, his employer was not impressed by his alleged off-duty conduct and initiated proceedings to terminate Mui’s employment. Under the terms of Massport’s sick leave policy, an employee who is terminated for cause is not entitled to a payout of unused, but accrued sick time. In Mui’s case, the value of his unused sick time exceeded $46,000. In order to avoid the loss of this windfall, Mui basically said, “You can’t fire me, I quit” and applied for his retirement. When Massport went ahead and fired him anyhow, Mui took the issue to arbitration. Ultimately, the arbitrator overturned Mui’s termination, concluding that Massport could not fire an employee who had already quit. As a result, Massport paid Mui the value of his unused sick time a year after his “retirement.”
Rather than accept his victory at arbitration, Mui sued Massport for treble damages, claiming that his sick time payment qualified as “wages” and that the one year delay in payment violated the Wage Act. The superior court allowed Mui’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, and Massport appealed.
On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that accrued, unused sick time payouts did not fall within the definition of “wages” because an employee had to meet certain conditions to receive the payment. The court compared sick pay with vacation pay (which is covered by the statute) and contingent bonuses (which are not covered by the statute). Unlike vacation pay, which could be used for any purpose, sick time was limited to a specific type of use—illness of the employee or a family member. Thus, employees did not have a right to be compensated for not using sick time. The Court found that Massport’s sick time payment was more like a contingent bonus because it was paid as a reward to employees for not using all of their accrued sick time and not behaving in a manner that justified termination for cause.
Importantly, the Court went out of its way to explain that except for commissions (which are expressly covered by the statute), contingent compensation generally is not covered by the Wage Act. Thus, because payment of sick time under the Massport policy was contingent on meeting the eligibility criteria, Mui could not bring a Wage Act claim based on the delay in the sick time payout.
Mui is significant because it seemingly limits the scope of Wage Act claims—and the risk of automatic treble damages—in connection with contingent compensation not specifically enumerated in the statute. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have tried to expand the scope of the Wage Act, claiming that the statute should be interpreted broadly, but this decision signals that these arguments may not be successful in the future.