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

August 13, 2014: When Muriel Peters got robbed, it happened quietly and gradually. Nobody mugged her. No one broke into her home. Her employer simply didn’t pay her.

Ms. Peters worked between 54 and 65 hours a week as a home healthcare worker for more than a year, but she never received overtime pay. Fed up, she sued her employer, Early Healthcare Giver, on her own.

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. Undeterred, Ms. Peters appealed and began a multi-year journey all the way to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the Public Justice Center now at her side.

Ultimately, the court held that workers can use both the Maryland Wage and Hour Law and Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law to sue for unpaid wages, including overtime wages, and additional damages. These laws are intended to combat wage theft and to encourage employers to pay their workers fully and on time. Thus, the Court of Appeals reminded trial courts that they must consider the laws’ purpose when deciding whether to award damages.

This is a major victory for workers, clarifying the Maryland laws available for recovering wages and damages in the courts.

Ms. Peters’ victory is important because unfortunately, she is not alone. Many businesses in the home healthcare, hospitality, restaurant, construction, and landscaping industries routinely shortchange their workers. In 2013, Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation recovered nearly $530,000 in stolen wages, which is more than the total value of monies stolen through all purse-snatchings that year. And that doesn’t begin to account for the untold amount of wages that went unrecovered.

Muriel Peters continued to fight even though she knew that Early Healthcare Giver had gone out of business and likely would never pay her. She knew it was important to improve the law for herself (and others like her), because she’s still working in the same industry. And the results of her persistence continue to fuel the broader fight against wage theft today. Every year, the Public Justice Center uses the now-clarified Maryland wage laws to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in workers’ rightful earnings. Thank you, Ms. Peters, for standing up for workers’ rights to be paid fully and fairly!

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.