Wage Disputes and Public Housing Employees

The Supreme Judicial Court this week upheld the right of a public housing employee to seek redress for a wage dispute in Superior Court rather than in front of the Civil Service Commission.  In Fernandes v. Attleboro Housing Authority, the employee sued the housing authority in Superior Court alleging that he was due additional wages under the Massachusetts Wage Act because his employer misclassified his job position for the purpose of paying him less than what was owed.  One month after he filed a complaint with the Attorney General regarding the dispute, the employee was terminated “due to budgetary constraints.”   The housing authority unsuccessfully argued that the civil service law, G.L. c. 31, sec. 41, should have applied because the employee had complained about his compensation and then was terminated without “just cause.”  The SJC disagreed and observed that the nature of Fernandes’s claims arose under the Wage Act because of the intentional misclassification of his position.  More likely than not, the retaliation claim was an important factor in the court’s decision that the Superior Court had jurisdiction.

Now, I’m not an employment lawyer but it seems to me this case is a powerful reminder that bad facts make bad law.  In Fernandes, there was no allegation that the housing authority failed to pay the employee his wages.  The Wage Act, G.L. c. 149, sec. 148 requires the employer to pay the employee’s wages (“[e]very person having employees in his service shall pay weekly or bi-weekly each such employee the wages earned by him,” G.L. c. 149, sec. 148).  However, the Wage Act does not address the situation in this case, namely a dispute about job responsibilities and the proper classification of the work..

Ironically, the court denied Mr. Fernandes’s request for reinstatement because the Wage Act did not include such relief explicitly (“nothing in the Wage Act, G.L. c. 149, sec. 150, permits a court to order the reinstatement of any employee”).  Yet, the court seemed to have no difficulty concluding that the Wage Act governed a dispute about job classification when the statute says nothing about such matters.