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Victory upholds Maryland workers’ right to sue for unpaid wages and damages

August 13, 2014: When Muriel Peters first sued Early Healthcare Giver, Inc., without a lawyer, she lost. She had worked as a home healthcare worker between 54 and 65 hours per week for more than a year, but she never received any overtime pay.  But apparently that payment practice was okay, as the Circuit Court accepted her employer’s argument that Maryland wage laws did not apply to her. Undetered, Ms. Peters appealed and thus began a multi-year journey all the way to the Maryland Court of Appeals. Her persistence ultimately resulted in a major victory for workers reaching far beyond her own wages.

Shortly after Ms. Peters appealed the Circuit Court’s ruling, the Public Justice Center’s 2011-2012 Murnaghan Fellow Tom Davies began representing her. They insisted that Maryland wage laws did apply to her. The Court of Special Appeals agreed and returned the case to Circuit Court to be re-heard. 

Jean Zachariasiewicz, the 2012-2013 Murnaghan Fellow, joined Ms. Peters back at the Circuit Court level and submitted a memo arguing that Ms. Peters was entitled to be paid for her overtime under the Maryland Wage and Hour Law (WHL) and Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law (WPCL), and requested treble damages under the WPCL. This was a key test of the law, since a series of previous decisions (primarily in federal courts) had held that workers could not use the WPCL to sue for wages and damages.

The Circuit Court responded with an order to award Ms. Peters her lost wages but did not award damages and provided no explanation for its actions. So Ms. Peters appealed again and petitioned to go straight to the Court of Appeals. There, 2013-2014 Murnaghan Fellow Ilana Gelfman argued the case supported by an amicus brief filed by the National Employment Law Project, Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association, Maryland Employment Lawyers Association, Employment Justice Center, Maryland Legal Aid, and Casa de Maryland. Maryland’s Commissioner of Labor and Industry also filed a supportive amicus brief. 

On August 13, 2014, the Court of Appeals issued a decision confirming that workers can use both the Wage and Hour Law and the Wage Payment and Collection Law to sue for unpaid wages and seek additional damages. They held that courts must determine whether the employer failed to pay wages because of a legitimate dispute before making a ruling. The Court also reiterated that the purpose of the Wage Payment and Collection Law is to address the problem of wage theft and give employers an incentive to pay their employees fully and on time. Therefore, trial courts must consider this purpose in deciding whether to award damages to workers in addition to their unpaid wages. The ruling is a major victory for workers, clarifying the Maryland laws available for recovering their unpaid wages and damages through the court system. The Public Justice Center’s Workplace Justice Project has been working on this issue with the Murnaghan Fellows for years, so the Court’s decision is especially gratifying. Congratulations also to Muriel Peters, who persevered long after she knew Early Healthcare Giver had gone out of business and would likely never pay her, all because it was important to her to improve the law for herself and other workers in her field.

Muriel Peters’ case spanned several years, and over that time, she was represented by the Public Justice Center’s Workplace Justice Project and three of our Murnaghan Fellows. The Francis D. Murnaghan, Jr. Appellate Advocacy Fellowship allows a recent law graduate who has completed a judicial clerkship to spend a year engaging in appellate advocacy in the areas of civil rights and poverty law. Learn more about this one-of-a-kind fellowship


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