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Parris v. Sheriff of Suffolk County

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

September 5, 2018

EDWIN PARRIS & others [1]
v.
SHERIFF OF SUFFOLK COUNTY

          Heard: January 16, 2018.

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on June 10, 2014.

         The case was heard by Paul D. Wilson, J., on motions for summary judgment, and a motion for reconsideration was considered by him.

          Dennis M. Coyne for the plaintiffs.

          Janna Hansen, Assistant Attorney General, for the defendant.

          Present: Green, C.J., Trainor, Vuono, Massing, & Singh, JJ. [2]

          MASSING, J.

         The Wage Act, G. L. c. 149, §§ 148 and 150, generally requires that all public and private employers in the Commonwealth pay their employees' wages no more than seven days after the end of the pay period in which the wages were earned. Employees whose wages are detained longer than the Wage Act permits are entitled, after filing a complaint with the Attorney General, to initiate civil actions for injunctive relief, damages including lost wages, mandatory treble damages, and attorney's fees. The defendant sheriff of Suffolk County (sheriff), as a State employer, is required to make payments in accordance with the Wage Act to "every mechanic, workman and laborer" he employs and to "every person employed in any other capacity by [him] in any penal or charitable institution . . . unless such mechanic, workman, laborer or employee requests in writing to be paid in a different manner" (emphasis supplied). G. L. C. 149, § 148, as appearing in St. 1960, c. 416.

         In this case we must determine whether a provision in the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) between the sheriff and the unions representing his employees amounts to a valid "request[] in writing" by the employees "to be paid in a different manner." Ibid. In addition, we must determine whether the CBAs in question effectively waived the employees' rights to judicial enforcement of claims of late payment. We conclude that the unions had the authority, through collective bargaining, to exercise the employees' election to request that payment of overtime wages be made under a different schedule than the Wage Act provides, but that the CBAs here were not effective to waive the employees' rights to enforcement in court of the altered Wage Act schedule.

         Background.

         The facts, as presented in the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, are not in dispute. The individual plaintiffs all work or worked for the sheriff at the Nashua Street jail between January, 2010, and July 25, 2015.[3]All of the employees are members of State collective bargaining units. Plaintiff Jail Officers and Employees Association of Suffolk County (union) is the exclusive bargaining representative for most of the employees; two other unions represent the remaining employees. The sheriff recognized these unions as the exclusive representatives of their members for the purpose of collective bargaining. See G. L. c. 150E, § 4.

         The sheriff and the unions entered into a series of CBAs relevant to this litigation.[4] These CBAs contained an identical provision (art. X, § 7) reflecting the parties' agreement concerning the timing of overtime payments: "Employees shall be paid for overtime service within twenty-five (25) working days following the month in which such service is performed." At all relevant times the sheriff paid the employees their overtime wages under the CBA twenty-five-day provision rather than under the Wage Act's seven-day period. In some instances the sheriff detained overtime wages beyond the twenty-five-day time frame permitted in the CBAs.[5]

         After obtaining authorization from the Attorney General, [6]the lead plaintiffs commenced this action on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated employees. They alleged that the sheriff violated the Wage Act by, among other actions, failing to pay overtime wages within seven days.[7] Acting on cross motions for summary judgment, a judge of the Superior Court held that the employees, "having approved a written request in the CBA that they be paid in a different manner, have waived their right to enforce the schedule set out in the Wage Act." On the plaintiffs' timely motion for reconsideration, the judge further concluded that to the extent the sheriff exceeded the twenty-five-day time limit, the plaintiffs were required to exhaust the CBA's grievance procedures. Judgment entered for the sheriff, the plaintiff's complaint was dismissed, and this appeal ensued.

         Discussion.

         1. Request to deviate from Wage Act payment schedule.

         "The purpose of G. L. c. 149, § 148, is to prevent the evil of the 'unreasonable detention of wages [by employers].'" Newton v. Commissioner of the Dept. of Youth Servs., 62 Mass.App.Ct. 343, 345 (2004), quoting from Boston Police Patrolmen's Assoc, Inc. v. Boston, 435 Mass. 718, 720 (2002). See American Mut. Liab. Ins. Co. v. Commissioner of Labor & Indus., 340 Mass. 144, 147 (1959) (Wage Act was adopted "primarily to prevent unreasonable detention of wages"). "We have consistently held that the legislative purpose behind the Wage Act . . . is to provide strong statutory protection for employees and their right to wages." Crocker v. Townsend Oil Co., 464 Mass. 1, 13 (2012). Accordingly, waiver of Wage Act protections is strongly disfavored. See, e.g., Melia v. Zenhire, Inc., 462 Mass. 164, 170 (2012), quoting from Camara v. Attorney Gen., 458 Mass. 756, 760-761 (2011) ("An agreement to circumvent the Wage Act is illegal even when 'the arrangement is voluntary and assented to'").

         The fundamental public policy against forfeiture of Wage Act protections is rooted in the "special contract" provision of the statute, originally inserted in 1896, Melia, supra, which states, "No person shall by a special contract with an employee or by any other means exempt himself from this section or from [G. L. C. 149, § 150]." G. L. C. 149, § 148, as appearing in St. 1956, c. 259. Public employees, however, have long been explicitly granted the ability to make written requests to alter the manner of their payments. The ability to make this election predates the special contract provision. Indeed, as early at 1887, city employees were entitled to payment of wages every seven days, "unless such employee shall request in writing to be paid in some different manner." St. 1887, c. 399, § 1.

         While the Wage Act has consistently given the individual public employee the ability to make a written request for a different manner of payment, the statute does not expressly permit an employee's collective bargaining representative to make such a written request on the employee's behalf. The first question we must decide, therefore, is whether a collective bargaining representative has the authority to exercise the individual employees' election through collective bargaining.

         An interpretation of the Wage Act requiring individual employees personally to make this election would create a conflict with the public employee labor relations law, G. L. C. 150E. Under c. 150E, the relevant unions are the employees' "exclusive representative of all the employees . . . for the purpose of collective bargaining," G. L. c. 150E, § 4, inserted by St. 1973, c. 1078, § 2, and are empowered to act on the employees' behalf "with respect to wages, hours, standards or productivity and performance, and any other terms and conditions of employment," G. L. c. 150E, § 6, inserted by St. 1973, c. 1078, § 2. The employees' status as union members limits the sheriff's ability to deal directly with them. Rather, the unions possess the right to speak exclusively for all the employees on mandatory subjects of collective bargaining. See Service Employees Intl. Union, AFL-CIO, Local 509 v. Labor Relations Commn., 431 Mass. 710, 714 (2000). Direct communications between the sheriff and the employees regarding changes to the statutory payment schedule would have been a prohibited practice. See Id. at 715; Service Employees Intl. Union, Local 509 v. Department of Mental Health, 469 Mass. 323, 333 & n.10 (2014) .

         Public employee collective bargaining was first authorized by statute long after the Wage Act was in place. See Somerville v. Commonwealth Employment Relations Bd., 470 Mass. 563, 568-569 (2015) (discussing Commonwealth's recognition in 1958 of right of public employees to organize and to bargain collectively). "We assume that the Legislature was aware of existing statutes when enacting subsequent ones." Green v. Wyman-Gordon Co., 422 Mass. 551, 554 (1996). See Everett v. Revere, 344 Mass. 585, 589 (1962), quoting from Walsh v. Commissioners of Civil Serv., 300 Mass. 244, 246 (1938) ("A statute is to be interpreted with reference to the preexisting law. ... If reasonably practicable, it is to be explained in conjunction with other statutes to the end that there may be an harmonious and consistent body of law"); Fall River v. AFSCME Council 93, Local 3177, AFL-CIO, 61 Mass.App.Ct. 404, 406 (2004), quoting from Dedham v. Labor Relations Commn., 365 Mass. 392, 402 (1974) ("When possible, we attempt to read [statutes] and the collective bargaining law, as well as the agreements that flow from the collective bargaining law, as a 'harmonious whole'").

         To harmonize the Wage Act with c. 150E, we hold that the unions may act on behalf of their members to exercise the employees' election under the Wage Act to alter the timing of the overtime payments. We emphasize that the provision of the CBAs at issue here did not represent a waiver of individual rights under the Wage Act. Rather, the provision represents a negotiated version of a different time period for payment, elected by the employees as permitted by the terms of the Wage Act, through their collective bargaining representatives. Accordingly, to the extent that the sheriff paid the employees' overtime wages within twenty-five days of the end of the month in which they were earned, the sheriff was in compliance with what the unions, on behalf of the employees, agreed was timely payment under the Wage Act.

         2. Judicial remedies.

         Having held that the parties validly negotiated for the employees to be paid according to a different schedule than the Wage Act provides, we must determine whether the CBAs preclude the employees from judicial enforcement of their right to prompt payment under the negotiated Wage Act schedule. We conclude that they do not. "[T]he prompt payment of wages statute creates an independent statutory right that can be enforced judicially even when a collective bargaining agreement addresses the subject matter of compensation." Newton, 62 Mass.App.Ct. at 347.

         Unlike the exercise of the Wage Act election to be paid in a different manner, we deal here with the purported waiver of an individual statutory right. "Although a union has the power to waive statutory rights related to collective activity, rights . . . which are of a personal, and not merely economic, nature are beyond the union's ability to bargain away." Blanchettev.School Comm. of Westwood, 427 Mass. 176, 183 (1998) (protections of antidiscrimination law, G. L. c. 151B, not waivable through collective bargaining). The Wage Act rights at issue here fall into this category: "The statutory right to the timely payment of wages does not involve the ...


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