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Fernandes v. Attleboro Housing Authority

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Bristol

November 19, 2014

David Fernandes
v.
Attleboro Housing Authority

Argued September 4, 2014.

Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on November 13, 2009.

The case was heard by Robert J. Kane, J., and motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, for reinstatement, and for a new trial or for additur were heard by him.

Page 118

The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

Maria M. Scott for the plaintiff.

David D. Dowd for the defendant.

Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ.

OPINION

[20 N.E.3d 231] Spina, J.

David Fernandes was employed by the Attleboro Housing Authority (AHA) as a maintenance mechanic II from January 16, 2001, until his termination on May 29, 2009. Approximately six months later, he commenced an action in the Superior Court against the AHA for alleged violations of the Wage Act, G. L. c. 149, § § 148 and 148A. Fernandes claimed that the AHA violated § 148 by intentionally misclassifying his position as maintenance mechanic II, instead of maintenance mechanic I, and thereby failing to pay him the wages to which he was entitled. Fernandes also alleged that the AHA violated § 148A by terminating him in retaliation for complaining about nonpayment of earned wages and filing a complaint with the Attorney General's office.[1] Following a trial in January, 2012, a jury, in response to special questions, found in favor of Fernandes on both claims. The jury awarded damages against the AHA in the amount [20 N.E.3d 232] of $2,300 for unpaid wages due to misclassification, and $130,000 for lost wages due to retaliation.

The parties then filed numerous posttrial motions. Of relevance to the present appeal, the AHA filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, contending that the Superior Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Fernandes's wage and retaliation claims because, as a housing authority employee, Fernandes was required to bring such claims before the Civil Service Commission (commission) for resolution. Fernandes filed a motion for reinstatement to the position of maintenance mechanic I with full seniority as if he had not been terminated from employment on May 29, 2009, and a motion for a new trial on damages or, in the alternative, for additur. Following hearings, the trial judge denied all three motions in a thorough and well-reasoned decision.

First, after considering the purposes of and remedies afforded by the Massachusetts civil service law, G. L. c. 31, § § 41-45, and the Wage Act, G. L. c. 149, § § 148, 148A, 150, the judge discern-

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ed no legislative intent to confine a housing authority employee to the procedures set forth in the civil service law where his termination implicated violations of his rights under the Wage Act. Accordingly, the judge concluded that the AHA was not entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Next, with respect to Fernandes's motion for reinstatement, the judge was unpersuaded that G. L. c. 149, § 150, authorized such a remedy for retaliatory conduct in the absence of clear statutory language to that effect. Finally, the judge concluded that although the jury's calculation of $130,000 in damages for lost wages due to retaliation was less than the amount to which Fernandes thought he was entitled, the award was neither unreasonable nor so unduly small as to suggest the need for additional relief. In accordance with G. L. c. 149, § 150, the judge proceeded to award Fernandes treble damages in the amount of $6,900 for unpaid wages and $390,000 for retaliatory termination, plus reasonable attorney's fees in the amount of $36,667.50 and costs of $1,087.36.

The parties' cross appeals were entered in the Appeals Court, and we transferred the case to this court on our own motion. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the Superior Court had subject matter jurisdiction over Fernandes's claims under the Wage Act, that reinstatement to employment is not an available remedy for violations of such statutory scheme, and that the judge did not abuse his discretion in denying Fernandes's motion for additur. Accordingly, the judgment of the Superior Court is affirmed.

1. Background.

We briefly recite the facts the jury could have found from the evidence at trial, reserving some details for later discussion. When Fernandes was hired by the AHA in 2001, he was classified as a maintenance mechanic II. It was an entry-level position, considered to be in the nature of an apprenticeship to a higher job classification.

In 2003, the executive director of the AHA, John Zambarano, implemented changes to the duties of its maintenance department workers. Pursuant to these changes, Fernandes was required to perform more diversified work that he believed was consistent with the position of maintenance mechanic I, which required a greater skill level and paid a higher salary than he was receiving.[2] Notwithstanding [20 N.E.3d 233] Fernandes's enhanced job responsibilities, the

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AHA continued to pay him the salary of a maintenance mechanic II. On various occasions over the years of his tenure, Fernandes complained to his supervisor, Mark Johnson, and to Zambarano that he was misclassified and that, based on his duties, he properly should be classified as a maintenance mechanic I with the commensurate wage rate. His complaints were unsuccessful.

Finally, on April 28, 2009, Fernandes filed a " Non-Payment of Wage and Workplace Complaint Form" with the Attorney General's office. He alleged that, based on his job responsibilities, he had been misclassified as a maintenance mechanic II and was owed wages commensurate with the position of maintenance mechanic I. Fernandes informed Johnson that he had filed this complaint, and he subsequently requested and received from Dianne Precourt, AHA's financial coordinator, copies of his job description and the prevailing wage rates. One month later, on May 29, 2009, Zambarano called Fernandes into a meeting and informed him that, based on the seniority of the ...


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