RUN FORREST, RUN
A little over a week ago, in a legal climate that has already seen wage claims on the rise, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals made things even easier for employees in the state to bring wage claims against their employers.
In Beichler v. West Virginia University at Parkersburg, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals bucked the commonly-accepted legal requirement that a claimant exhaust available administrative remedies before bringing a lawsuit and held that an employee who seeks the payment of back wages under the West Virginia Wage Payment and Collection Act (“WPCA”) has the option of either filing an administrative claim under the Act, or filing a civil suit directly in a West Virginia Circuit Court.
The Plaintiff in the case, Mr. Beichler, was a tenure-track professor at WVU Parkersburg in the physics department. In May, 2007 he was denied tenure and was then issued a “one year termination contract” for the upcoming school year. He was allegedly terminated because of declining enrollment in the physics department. During this time, Beichler also took advantage of additional teaching and income opportunities beyond his normal academic duties by entering into a number of “Faculty Overload Contracts” with WVU.
In November 2008 – after ignoring the administrative remedy path as provided in the WPCA – Beichler filed a civil suit in Circuit Court alleging that WVU had failed to pay him for his services under the Faculty Overload Contracts. WVU moved to dismiss Beichler’s Compliant, contending that his claims were barred in part because he failed to exhaust administrative remedies. The Circuit Court agreed and dismissed Beichler’s case.
On appeal, however, despite acknowledging the typical principle that “where an administrative remedy is provided by statute or by rules and regulations having the force and effect of law, relief must be sought from the administrative body, and such remedy must be exhausted before the courts will act,” the Supreme Court of Appeals chose instead to create an exception to that principle. Specifically, the Court held that “a person whose wages have not been paid in accord with the West Virginia Wage Payment and Collection Act may initiate a claim for the unpaid wages either through the administrative remedies provided under the Act or by filing a complaint for the unpaid wages directly in circuit court.”
Admittedly, the legislature opened the door for this exception when it included language in W. Va. Code § 21-5-12(a) that a claimant may “bring any legal action necessary” to collect unpaid wages under the Act, and chose not to limit or require a claimant to first pursue and exhaust administrative remedies defined in the WPCA.
The word that plaintiffs have another reason to go running to Circuit Court can only leave employers in West Virginia with an unsettling feeling. The case serves as another reminder to employers to thoroughly, accurately and promptly pay wages to their employees – or else the plaintiff won’t be the only one running to a lawyer.