Highest Court in the Maryland holds that Maryland’s Wage Law is “Strong Public Policy”
by Aamir Mansoor, Interim Pro Bono Coordinator
Last month, the Court of Appeals of Maryland ruled on a case that could have a tremendous effect on the wage claim enforcement rights of Maryland workers. The court held that the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law (“MWPCL”) could, in some circumstances, be applied outside of the State of Maryland.
The case at hand, Cunningham, et al. v. Feinberg, involves a law-firm employee who sued his former employer on a wage claim. The employee, an attorney named Matthew Feinberg, was hired by a Virginia-based law firm that required him to spend most of his time in Joseph Cunningham’s Virginia office. Feinberg concurrently handled matters in Maryland courts. When Feinberg was not paid the salary he was promised, he sued Cunningham in Maryland, seeking recovery under the MWPCL.
Cunningham, the defendant, argued for the choice of law doctrine of lex loci contractus, which states that the law of the jurisdiction where the contract was signed should apply. Feinberg, meanwhile, argued that strong public policy reasons existed to apply the MWPCL even to work occurring outside of Maryland. In facing a similar question a few years earlier, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit declined to apply the law to work done outside of Maryland, reasoning that the MWPCL did not represent a “strong public policy” of the state.
As the ultimate interpreter of Maryland state law, the Court of Appeals of Maryland revisited the question in Cunningham. The court held that the MWPCL action is not based in contract, but is instead an independent claim. Therefore, employees working for employers located in states outside of Maryland are not necessarily limited to the remedies available under the law of the state where the employer is based or where the employment agreement was signed. Such employees, in certain circumstances, have the ability to assert claims under the MWPCL in Maryland courts.
The court noted that the MWPCL was meant to be a complement to the Maryland Wage and Hour Law (“MWHL”). The MWPCL ensures that employees in Maryland are fully paid all wages required in a regular and timely fashion. The MWPCL contains strong language to ensure compliance. When an employer fails to pay wages as required, an employee may recover three times the wages in damages. While the MWHL contained language preventing contractual agreements from violating its provisions, the MWPCL did not. Maryland House Bill 298 of 2011 (“HB 298”) corrected this oversight and provided language identical to that of the MWHL. Specifically, it states that any “agreement to work for less than the wage required under this subtitle is void.”
In making its decision in Cunningham, the Court of Appeals relied on HB 298. The court used HB 298’s correction of the MWPCL to explain the circumvention of the generally accepted doctrine of lex loci contractus. In recognizing the clarification provided by HB 298, the court stated that the WPCL reflects a “strong public policy” of the State of Maryland. The resulting effect may mean that an employee’s MWPCL claim will almost always prevail over any contract-based defenses raised by an employer.
In any given year, the EJC’s Workers’ Rights Clinics sees hundreds of wage claim cases. A large section of these cases involve Maryland workers with employers located outside of that state. Many of these cases are either taken in-house by the EJC or referred to one of our pro bono partners. The Court of Appeals of Maryland’s ruling will help streamline the process of recovering damages for workers represented by EJC and our pro bono partners. The EJC will continue to monitor how this ruling affects a worker’s ability to collect on their wage claims.
You can find the Maryland Court of Appeals decision in Cunningham v. Feinberg here.