How do you know who gets fees for prevailing in a Massachusetts Wage Act case?

Whole case settled except for attorney’s fees

Mass SJC – encourage correction of unlawful behavior by rewarding Wage Act attorneys

Use the catalyst test for fee requests to see who prevailed.

FACTS

A Massachusetts Wage Act case Ferman v Sturgis Cleaners Massachusetts SJC 2019, got sent to mediation which led the worker to settle getting 70% of the initial demand. The employer paid but gave no admissions of liability.

No agreement could be reached on who should pay the fees of the attorney who brought the case.

ISSUE

The Massachusetts Wage Act law says the employer pays the worker’s attorney fees if the employee “prevails”.  The Employer’s lawyer for Sturgis said the case settled, you didn’t prevail. The settlement ended the case without any judge. The test for fees, the employer argued, in this state law case is the strict Federal rule.

The parties agreed to let a judge decide.

The trial judge decided the settlement money was the result of the worker’s attorney’s efforts and awarded attorney’s fees. 

Massachusetts top court the SJC took the case by special rule because, the SJC said it is especially important to provide attorney’s fees for Wage Act cases. 

HOLDING

The SJC described the ‘catalyst test’ where fees are earned if there is a grant of material relief caused by the plaintiff’s lawsuit.  There is no need to take a case to final decision to earn a fee award.  The catalyst rule promotes early settlements and it avoids the trick of using an 11th hour settlement to avoid having to pay the fees of the one bringing the case. 

This catalyst rule will not apply in cases based on Federal law, if you make a Federal case out of it but for Massachusetts Wage Act cases, prevailing employee’s attorney’s fees are paid even where there is a settlement – by the employer.

So many cases are fights over attorneys’ fees…