A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Zack Needles, “Attorney Fees Not Subject to Damages Cap in Wage Case, Court Says,” reports that attorney fees can be awarded under the Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law (WPCL), even if they cause the total recovery to exceed a voluntary $25,000 damages cap, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in a case of first impression.
Under Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1311.1, a plaintiff can elect to limit the maximum amount of damages recoverable to $25,000 in exchange for looser evidence admission requirements at a trial following compulsory arbitration. In a published opinion in Grimm v. Universal Medical Services, a three-judge Superior Court panel unanimously ruled that such a cap does not preclude an award of attorney fees under the WPCL that pushes the total recovery above $25,000.
The decision affirmed a Beaver County trial court's award of $43,080.66, comprising an $11,683.92 jury award, plus $2,920.98 in liquidated damages and $28,475.76 in attorney fees and costs under the WPCL. The appeals court upheld Beaver County Court of Common Pleas Judge James J. Ross' ruling, which reasoned that attorney fees in excess of the damages cap should be permitted because "a prevailing plaintiff in a [WPCL] claim must be made whole and not be required to expend his or her award to pay his or her attorney."
Judge John T. Bender, writing for the Superior Court, agreed with Ross' rationale, noting that Rule 1311.1 is intended to streamline litigation in order to make it more economically feasible for plaintiffs, while the WPCL is meant to allow plaintiffs to collect unpaid wages and compensation without having to spend their entire recovery on legal fees.
"In this way, both Rule 1311.1 and the WPCL aim to make litigation more accessible and affordable to aggrieved litigants, particularly those with meritorious claims," Bender said. "In this case, we believe we are promoting this overarching policy by interpreting 'damages recoverable' in Rule 1311.1(a) to exclude attorneys' fees under the WPCL." Bender was joined by Judges Mary Jane Bowes and Carl A. Solano.
In Grimm, plaintiff Jeffrey P. Grimm sued defendants Universal Medical Services Inc. and Roderick K. Reeder, alleging breach of contract against Universal for failure to reimburse business expenses and a WPCL claim against both defendants on the same basis, according to Bender.
The case proceeded to compulsory arbitration, with an award in favor of the defendants. Grimm appealed to the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas, electing to cap damages at $25,000 under Rule 1311.1, and the case proceeded to a jury trial, Bender said.
The jury awarded damages to Grimm in the amount of $11,683.92 and, finding that Universal acted in bad faith in failing to reimburse him, the court added 25 percent, or $2,920.98, to the jury award, resulting in a total of $14,604.90, according to Bender. Grimm then sought attorney fees in the amount of $25,946.25 and litigation costs in the amount of $2,529.51 under the WPCL.
While the defendants argued that the phrase "damages recoverable" in Rule 1311.1 encompassed attorney fees, Grimm contended that attorney fees are payments in addition to a jury award intended to make the plaintiff whole.
Bender noted that Ross, in his analysis, looked first at the analogous 2001 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Allen v. Mellinger, in which then-Justice Ralph Cappy wrote in a concurring and dissenting opinion that delay damages in cases involving bodily injury, death or property damage under Pa.R.Civ.P. 238 should not be subject to the statutory cap of $250,000 when the state is a defendant in a bodily injury claim.
In the 2005 case LaRue v. McGuire, as Ross also noted in his opinion, the Superior Court relied on Cappy's reasoning in Allen to find that delay damages under Rule 238 were not subject to the Rule 1311.1 damages cap.
While the defendants attempted to distinguish Grimm from Allen and LaRue by arguing that delay damages are an extension of compensatory damages intended to make the plaintiff whole, while attorney fees serve no such purpose, Bender disagreed.
"It is clear that the award of attorneys' fees under the WPCL accomplishes the purpose of making a plaintiff whole, just like the delay damages in Allen and LaRue," Bender said.