Heard: December 4, 2018
action commenced in the Superior Court Department on November
19, 2014. Following a stipulation of dismissal, an
application for attorney's fees and costs was heard by
Karen F. Green, J. The Supreme Judicial Court granted an
application for direct appellate review.
J. McGlone, III (David T. Norton also present) for the
Elizabeth Soltan (Patricio S. Rossi also present) for the
Michalakes & Liliana Ibara, for Immigrant Worker Center
Collaborative & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.
Margaret E. Monsell & Ruth A. Bourquin, for Massachusetts
Law Reform Institute & another, amici curiae, submitted a
Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher,
& Kafker, JJ.
case requires us to consider whether employees, whose claim
against their employer under the Wage Act, G. L. c. 149,
§§ 148, 150, resulted in a favorable settlement
agreement and stipulation of dismissal, "prevailed"
in their suit for purposes of an award of attorney's fees
and costs under the Wage Act's fee-shifting
provisions. The defendants contend that the trial
judge should have applied the test for determining prevailing
party status under Federal fee-shifting statutes established
by Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. West
Virginia Pep't of Health & Human Resources, 532
U.S. 598 (2001) (Buckhannon). Because
Buckhannon requires a prevailing litigant to obtain
judicial approval or "imprimatur" of a private
settlement, the defendants argue that the plaintiffs did not
prevail. Id. at 605. The plaintiffs disagree,
arguing that, because we have previously decided that the
Buckhannon test has no applicability to
Massachusetts fee-shifting statutes, the correct standard to
determine prevailing party status under the Wage Act is the
"catalyst test." Under the catalyst test, if the
plaintiff's lawsuit is a necessary and important factor
in causing the defendant to grant a material portion of the
requested relief, a settlement agreement, even without any
judicial involvement, may qualify the plaintiff as a
prevailing party for fee-shifting purposes. None of the
parties disputes that the plaintiffs met the catalyst test;
rather, the central issue is the threshold question of the
proper test to apply to determine prevailing party status
under the Wage Act. We hold that the catalyst test applies to
Wage Act claims and that the trial judge correctly found that
the plaintiffs satisfied that test in the instant case, and
we therefore affirm the award of attorney's fees to the
plaintiffs under the fee-shifting provisions of the Wage
Facts and procedural history.
facts and procedural posture of this case are not contested.
The plaintiffs are former employees of the defendants'
dry cleaning business who brought suit in November 2014,
claiming that the defendants failed to pay them approximately
$28, 000 in regular and overtime wages as required by G. L.
c. 149, §§ 148 and 150, and G. L. c. 151,
§§ 1A and IB. Both of these chapters confer a
private right of action on an employee "aggrieved"
by an employer's violation of their
provisions. They further provide that "[a]n
employee so aggrieved who prevails in such an action shall be
awarded treble damages . . . and shall also be awarded the
costs of the litigation and reasonable attorneys'
fees." See G. L. c. 149, § 150; G. L. c. 151,
§ IB. In their complaint, the plaintiffs claimed treble
damages, as well as costs and attorney's
an almost two-year period in which there was the entry and
lifting of a default judgment against the defendants,
discovery, and the filing of various pretrial motions, the
case was scheduled for trial in November 2016. Several weeks
before the trial date, the court referred the parties to
mediation. As a result of mediation, the parties executed a
memorandum of understanding in which they agreed to settle
the case for $20, 500, but reserved the issue of the
plaintiffs' entitlement to attorney's fees for
resolution by the court. The parties then executed a mutual
release and settlement agreement that provided that it
"is the result of a compromise and that nothing set
forth herein constitutes an admission of wrongdoing or
liability." Subsequently, the parties filed a
stipulation with dismissal in court, agreeing that
"[p]ursuant to the Memorandum of Understanding and . . .
Mutual Release and Settlement Agreement . . . Plaintiffs may
file a Motion for Costs and Attorneys' Fees,"
following determination of which the matter would be
"dismissed with prejudice" and "all rights of
appeal . . . waived."
their motion for attorney's fees, filed in February 2017,
the plaintiffs claimed approximately $40, 000 in
attorney's fees and $1, 000 in costs. The defendants
opposed the motion. The judge concluded that the catalyst
test and not the Buckhannon test applied to
Massachusetts fee-shifting statutes. Applying the catalyst
test, the judge found that the parties' agreement, which
amounted to approximately seventy percent of the
plaintiffs' initially demanded monetary relief, resulted
"in a practical benefit as a result of their
attorneys' efforts." This made the plaintiffs
"prevailing parties" for purposes of an award of
attorney's fees ...