A recent decision of the Massachusetts Appeals Court provides a warning to employees: some state laws that appear to provide protections to employees cannot be enforced by employees who have suffered abuses. The case provides an excellent example of why joining a union provides employees with better protections from overreaching employers than state laws and the court system.
One of the benefits of being in a union is that you can file grievances under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between your union and your employer. The grievance procedure normally covers any violations of the CBA and the CBA usually contains provisions that set your wages, hours and many of the terms and conditions of your job. Going through the grievance procedure (which usually ends with final and binding arbitration by an arbitrator picked by the union and the employer) means you don’t have to go out and get a lawyer, or go to a state agency on your own. Although the union does have control over which cases to take to arbitration, clear violations of the CBA will normally be resolved through the grievance process – either at or before arbitration.
Employees who are not in unions have to rely on a complicated web of state laws – some incorporated in statutes, others embodied in judicial decisions (also known as the “common law”) – to enforce their rights. In some cases, they have to prosecute their claims through state or federal agencies or in state or federal court. These processes are almost always lengthy and complicated, and they usually require the employee to hire a lawyer at his or her own expense.
The recent Appeals Court case of Tortolano v. Lemuel Shattuck Hospital (Tortolano) demonstrates that, even when there appears to be a state law that protects employees, there may be no procedure for employees to use that law in their favor. Tortolano, which was decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court on August 20, 2018, provides an excellent example of a state law that is not what it seems. Section 30B of Chapter 149 of the Massachusetts General Laws requires employers to pay overtime pay at time and a half for certain non-exempt Massachusetts employees. Andrea M. Tortolano, an employee of the state-run Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, believed that she had not been paid proper overtime for time when she was on call in violation of Section 30B. She went to the Attorney General’s office, which gave her a letter saying that it was not going to pursue the matter, but giving Ms. Tortolano the right to sue for a violation of the statute on her own behalf. But when Tortolano sued, her employer argued that Chapter 149, Section 30B did not give private individuals the right to sue for violation of the law. The only entity that could sue an employer for violating Section 30B was the Attorney General’s office. A judge in the Superior Court agreed with the hospital and dismissed the case, and the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed the decision. The Appeals Court essentially held that the Attorney General’s “right to sue” letter wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. Because the Attorney General decided not to sue, Ms. Tortolano was out of luck.
In reaching the conclusion that individual employees could not sue under the overtime law, the Appeals Court relied on the SJC’s earlier decision in Salvas v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 452 Mass. 337 (2008). In that case, the state’s highest court ruled that there was no private right of action for employees to sue an employer who failed to provide a meal break as required by Section 100 of Chapter 149. The logic of both Tortolano and Salvas is that because some of the provisions of Chapter 149 specifically permit employees to sue on their own (such as Section 148, which provides for timely payment of wages), the provisions that don’t specifically give individual employee the right to sue are only enforceable by the Attorney General.
The lesson of Tortolano and Salvas for unionized employees is this: don’t assume that a statutory right is enforceable on your own. You are better off negotiating these statutory provisions into your CBA and using the grievance procedure (including binding arbitration) to enforce them, thus avoiding the overworked and expensive court and agency processes.
The lesson for non-unionized employees is even clearer: organize!
Read the decision here.