A recent decision from the Massachusetts Superior Court interprets for the first time whether the new treble damages statute applies to cases that were pending when it was enacted on July 13, 2008. In an apparent win for employers, the Court held in Pantano v. Artificial Life, Inc. that the treble damages statute is not retroactive. This is welcome news for companies that have been waiting for clarity regarding the level of monetary exposure for wage and hour violations under the new law.  

Robert Pantano worked for Artificial Life, Inc. from April 1995 until May 2001, when the company began to experience financial difficulties. As a result, the company laid off several employees, including Pantano. Pantano subsequently filed a claim in Superior Court for failure to pay wages. The Court granted Pantano’s motion for summary judgment and determined that Artificial Life was liable for $62,895, but declined to rule on whether to award punitive damages. Pantano then moved for a summary judgment award of treble damages.  

The issue before the Superior Court was whether to apply retroactively Chapter 80 of the Acts of 2008, which provides mandatory treble damages for violations of Massachusetts wage and hour laws. In its analysis, the Court noted that legislative acts do not apply retroactively unless “a statute explicitly states that it should” or “the context of the statute indicates the intent of the legislature for it to apply retroactively.”

Because Chapter 80 contained no explicit or implicit indication that the Legislature had this intent, the Court ruled against retroactive application. In a separate footnote, the Court also noted that applying this statute in such a manner would be inappropriate because specific language that would have indicated retroactivity was omitted from the final legislation.

While this unpublished trial court decision has limited precedential value, it is still likely to be persuasive with other courts addressing this issue and is therefore good news for employers facing wage claims under the new treble damages statute.