Employees who believe they have been improperly denied payment of wages or commissions owed when separated from employment may make a claim against their employer seeking full payment. Particular statutory provisions apply depending on whether the employee was terminated or voluntarily resigned.

In either situation, the employee may be entitled to a penalty payment, in addition to full payment of the owed wages or commissions. That penalty is “equal to the amount of the employee’s average daily earnings at the employee’s regular rate of pay or the rate required by law, whichever rate is greater, for every day, not exceeding 15 days in all” until such payment is made. An employee is not entitled to the penalty payment unless the claim results in the employee obtaining an amount greater than the amount of wages or commissions already paid by the employer in good faith. Minn. Stat. § 181.14, subd. 3.

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently decided whether non-wage related amounts owed by the employee to the employer can be offset against the wages or commissions recovered in determining whether the employee is entitled to the penalty payment.

In Toyota Lift of Minnesota, Inc. v. American Warehouse Systems, LLC, a lawsuit resulted in the employee being awarded more than $100,000 in disputed commissions. However, the employer’s counterclaim resulted in a more than $800,000 unrelated judgment against the employee. The Minnesota Supreme Court held that the unrelated counterclaim judgment could not be offset against the employee’s wage claim recovery. While the statute is silent as to whether such an offset is expressly permissible or not, the Court concluded that, when each part of the statute is read in context, such an offset was not authorized by the Minnesota Legislature.

Takeaway: Unrelated amounts owed to the employer cannot be offset against wages or commissions owing to the employee to avoid the statutory penalty payment. Employers should be aware that the possibility of such a penalty remains regardless of the merits of their counterclaims against the employee.