Massachusetts Court Declines Invitation To Determine “Oppressive and Unreasonable” Wage Rate

Beyond setting a minimum wage rate for the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Minimum Fair Wage Law (MFWL) also forbids payment of an “oppressive and unreasonable wage,” defined by statute as “a wage which is both less than the fair and reasonable value of the services rendered and less than sufficient to meet the minimum cost of living necessary for health.”

The plaintiff in Costello v. Whole Foods Market Group, Inc., 2016 WL 4186927 (D. Mass. Aug. 8, 2016) offered the novel argument that a wage rate higher than the established minimum wage may nonetheless be “oppressive and unreasonable,” only to be shot down by a federal district judge. Although technically a matter of first impression, the district court found “that from the very beginning, the MFWL has been interpreted to enforce the minimum wage standards that are statutorily or administratively set, but not to permit ad hoc, case by case inquiries into what might be ‘oppressive and unreasonable’ in varying circumstances. The fact that a wage is not below any established minimum is conclusive that the wage is also not ‘oppressive and unreasonable.'” The court therefore concluded that because the plaintiff’s wage rate always exceeded the statutory minimum, it “could never have violated the MFWL.”

The issue actually arose in the context of a claim for retaliatory discharge–the plaintiff alleged that he was fired for complaining about an “oppressive and unreasonable” wage rate. Rejecting the claim essentially for want of protected activity, the court reasoned that the plaintiff could not have reasonably believed the statute “authorizes the free-floating assessment he proposes. In other words, given the way the law has been administered, it would not have been reasonable for him to believe that his employer violated the minimum wage law by not giving him a raise from an already above-minimum wage to an even higher wage.”

While the result in Costello is hardly surprising, a contrary ruling would undoubtedly have had disastrous consequences, potentially leaving it to the judiciary to determine on a case-by-case basis whether a given wage was “oppressive and unreasonable” under the particular circumstances. Hopefully, this is the last we’ve seen of the novel argument rejected in Costello.

Lawrence Peikes
Wiggin and Dana LLP

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