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Massachusetts’ Highest Court Rules No Double Recovery Allowed for Back Wages

Posted on: August 5th, 2020

By: Zinnia Khan

On July 14, 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) of Massachusetts held employees cannot recover unpaid back wages under two different Massachusetts wage laws because doing so would amount to a double recovery with the same set of allegations.

The ruling in Donis v. American Waste Services LLC, et al. (SJC-12842) reversed a lower court’s decision and differed from guidance issued by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy.  The SJC looked at whether the plaintiffs, “shakers” who operated waste trucks and hydraulic levers for American Waste Services LLC, were entitled to damages under both the Prevailing Wage Act (G.L. c. 149, §§ 26-27) and the Commonwealth’s more general Wage Act (G.L. c. 149, § 148).  While the Wage Act has a broader application, the Prevailing Wage act applies only to employees working on certain public works projects.

The Donis plaintiffs claimed that the defendant employers failed to pay them at the rates required by the Prevailing Wage Act.  There was, however, no basis provided for a violation of the Wage act other than this specific violation of the Prevailing Wage Act.  Before the matter reached the SJC, the Massachusetts Appeals Court found the language in the Wage Act was broad enough to allow the plaintiffs to recover money under that statute.  Defendant American Waste Services appealed on the question of whether the plaintiffs could recover under both the Wage Act and the Prevailing Wage Act.

Breaking with the Appeals Court, the SJC noted the Prevailing Wage Act “already provides its own remedy.”  Accordingly, it held the plaintiffs were entitled to damages only under the Prevailing Wage Act.  They could not recoup damages under the Wage Act, which would have enabled them to also hold the defendants’ officers liable for the back pay owed.

The SJC’s decision also looked to legislative intent.  The SJC noted that, since the legislature specifically carved out the Prevailing Wage Act as a separate law with certain remedies for the types of claims the plaintiff employees brought against American Waste Services, that was the only law under which they could recover the back pay they were owed.

The court also disagreed with the Office of Attorney General Maura Healy, which filed a brief in support of the workers stating that employers must comply with both the Wage Act and any other relevant employment laws and obligations.

The SJC’s decision to curtail double recovery under the two statutes and confirm that the Prevailing Wage Act has its own comprehensive scheme for regulating payments will be reassuring to employers.  Even so, we advise businesses to exercise caution and ensure compliance with all applicable wage and hour laws, including the more broadly tailored Wage Act. 

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Zinnia Khan at [email protected].

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