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Choose due diligence over deliberate ignorance, court suggests

July 31, 2015:  “I didn’t know” is not a valid excuse for failing to pay overtime. But that was one company’s reasoning for why it did not pay home care worker Victoria Kelly overtime. While Ms. Kelly regularly worked well over eighty hours (and sometimes over one hundred hours) per week, her employer never bothered to investigate its obligation to pay her the overtime premiums clearly due under Maryland’s wage laws. Instead, it tried to pass off this ignorance of the very existence of Maryland’s wage laws as a “bona fide dispute” that would insulate it from paying any additional damages or attorney’s fees for the obvious violations.   

The Public Justice Center and Maryland Legal Aid challenged the employer’s arguments. In July, the Circuit Court strongly backed our reasoning that ignorance of Maryland’s wage laws is not a bona fide dispute, stating, “This is not a case where the Defendants exercised due diligence to ascertain the obligations imposed by Maryland law.  To the contrary, [they] neither researched, nor sought legal advice, as to Maryland law governing overtime wages for the Plaintiff or her co-workers . . . In fact, even though the Defendants were operating a business in the State of Maryland, [they] ‘ . . . honestly never looked into it.’”  Rejecting the employer’s claim of a bona fide dispute, the court concluded: “Defendants chose deliberate ignorance over due diligence.”

The court’s decision is good news for workers asserting their right to be paid as required by Maryland’s wage laws. The court said that finding a bona fide dispute in these circumstances “would undermine the statutes designed to protect employees and encourage non-compliance with the law.  Indeed, under the Defendants' analysis, an employer could choose ignorance, and forever escape the provisions of the statute designed to foster compliance.”   

Maryland’s Wage Payment and Collection Law allows workers like Ms. Kelly to recover additional damages only if the wages are not paid because of a bona fide dispute.  The Court’s decision means that Ms. Kelly is not barred from seeking additional damages, and the matter is currently set for trial in mid-December.

Stay tuned as we ramp up enforcement of home health care workers’ rights in the coming year. We’re especially excited that the DC Circuit Court recently restored U.S. Labor Department regulations protecting overtime and minimum wages for home health care workers, reversing a lower court’s decision to scrap the regulations. We’ll be drawing on these federal regulations, as well as Maryland laws, to hold employers accountable. Also check out this resource for Maryland home health care workers from the Public Justice Center and National Employment Law Project, intended to prevent their unlawful misclassification as independent contractors.

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