Fans of Star Trek will no doubt remember the classic episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Employers facing claims under the 2008 amendments to the Massachusetts Wage Act are facing their own challenges, which could be called “The Trouble with Trebels.” Under the amendments, the Legislature changed the language of G.L. 149, § 150, to make the award of treble (or triple) damages mandatory in all wage claim cases. Before the amendments, it was left to a judge’s discretion to determine whether an award of multiple damages was called for under the circumstances of each particular case.
A recent decision by the Massachusetts Appeals Court makes clear that the mandatory treble damages provision applies to claims for unpaid commissions under the Wage Act, in the same way that it applies to claims for other types of wages. The plaintiff in Weber v. Coast to Coast Medical, Inc., Doc. No. 12-P-1005 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 10, 2013), claimed that he was owed nearly $12,000 in unpaid commissions in connection with his job as a sales representative for a medical equipment company. After the jury entered a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor, the judge awarded three times the amount of the unpaid commissions—nearly $36,000—as damages under the Wage Act’s mandatory treble damages provision. (The judge also awarded $25,000 for attorney’s fees—relief that was already mandatory before the 2008 amendments.)
The defendant employer appealed, arguing that “commissions” are not included in Section 150’s “lost wages and other benefits” language. The employer took the position that the language in Section 148 of the Wage Act that makes the statute applicable “so far as apt, to payment of commissions,” shows that the Legislature intended to differentiate between commissions and other types of “wages.” The Appeals Court rejected this argument, pointing out that while not all benefits fall within the term “wages,” commissions have been held by the courts to be wages, and recoverable under Section 150. The Appeals Court held that, under long-standing principles of statutory interpretation, the Legislature is presumed to be aware of the provisions in related statutes. Therefore, the Appeals Court held that when the Legislature amended Section 150 to make treble damages mandatory in cases for recovery of “wages,” they were aware that that term also included commissions.