New Ruling on North Carolina Wage & Hour Act Attorneys Fees

Posted by Sean P. CecilMay 23, 20240 Comments

A worker has a right to sue their employer for unpaid wages. If the worker prevails, they can win a judgment for back pay, liquidated damages, and they may also recover (reasonable) attorney fees. These should be significant deterrents to any employer who might consider not paying an employee. As discussed on our unpaid wages home page, the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act (NCWHA), broadly defines "wages" to include promised hourly pay, salary, commissions, piece work, benefits, bonuses, and more. 

Your Boss Might Have to Pay your Attorney Too if They Don't Pay You

This week, the question of attorney fees was the subject of a Court of Appeals ruling regarding the question whether the trial judge erred in denying attorney fees to a prevailing worker. The worker won a jury trial regarding unpaid commissions. (Commissions are wages under the NCWHA). In Brown v. Caruso Homes, the jury found that the plaintiff was owed $122,568.24 in back commissions. Exercising discretion, the trial judge also ordered liquidated damages, doubling the amount owed by the employer. In deciding whether to order double damages, the judge concluded that the Defendant's failure to pay was not in "good faith". 

The prevailing worker's lawyer also submitted an motion for attorney fees for the trial, in the amount of $463,320.00. This motion was denied. The plaintiff and her attorney appealed the Judge's decision as unreasonable. Affirming the trial court decision denying the attorney fee motion, the Court of Appeals ruled that the decision whether to order a defendant in a Wage & Hour case is within the sound discretion of the trial judge. Notably, the Court of Appeals quoted some of the discourse from the motion hearing regarding the amount requested, the attorney's "expertise" compared to the time billed for "research" a case that they had described as "simple" and then later  "complex" ...and the trial judge's statement that the defendant should not have to pay for time the lawyer's young associate spent learning the law. Reading the opinion, it seems like the court was sensing a bit of overreach. Both courts also noted that the attorneys fee agreement provided that they would be paid the "greater" of 33% of total recovery OR whatever fee was ordered. The judge ordered 33% of the total judgment to be paid to the attorney as their fee.

The North Carolina Wage & Hour Act Protects Workers

The North Carolina Wage & Hour Act is a powerful tool for helping workers get paid for the fruit of their labor. Potential remedies such as liquidated damages and prevailing plaintiff attorney fees can be very useful tools to encourage employers to pay what they owe. However, as demonstrated in Brown, the trial court judge retains discretion to decide how those remedies are applied. 

The Law Office of Sean P. Cecil, PLLC has experience pursuing unpaid wages on behalf of working North Carolinians. Give us a call or fill out our contact form for a free consultation if you think you may be owed wages from your employer.