The Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts’ highest court, has ruled in Rosnov v. Molloy, SJC-10762 (August 31, 2011) that an amendment to the Massachusetts Wage Act, which mandates an automatic award of treble damages to employees prevailing on wage and hour claims under Massachusetts law, does not apply retroactively. Rather, according to the Supreme Judicial Court, it only applies to conduct occurring on or after the July 12, 2008 effective date of the statute. A 2008 amendment to the Massachusetts Wage Act, M.G.L. c. 149, section 150, provides for a mandatory award of treble damages to prevailing employees in wage and hour claims against their employers. Specifically, the amendment provided the following:

An employee so aggrieved who prevails in such action shall be awarded treble damages, as liquidated damages, for any lost wages and other benefits and shall also be awarded the costs of the litigation and reasonable attorneys’ fees.

Following the 2008 amendment, plaintiffs’ attorneys in Massachusetts had taken the position that the mandatory treble damages provision applied to all claims, including those arising from conduct occurring prior to the effective date of the amendment. The Supreme Judicial Court’s recent decision in Rosnov puts an end to litigation over the retroactive application of the mandatory treble damages in Massachusetts wage and hour claims. Employers in Massachusetts now can rely on Rosnov to limit their exposure to mandatory damages to only those claims arising from conduct occurring prior to the amendment’s effective date of July 12, 2008.

Importantly, the court’s decision does not insulate employers from all liability for treble damages based on conduct occurring prior to July 12, 2008, just not automatic liability. Courts still retain the discretion to award treble damages to employees based on conduct occurring prior to July 12, 2008. Employees seeking treble damages against their employers for wage and hour violations based on conduct occurring before July 12, 2008 can still recover treble damages if they are able to show that their employers’ conduct was “outrageous, because of the defendants’ evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.”