New Washington Case on Employee Wage Claims Against Employers

On December 18, 2018, the Court of Appeals of Washington, published Charles Peiffer, v. Pro-Cut Concrete Cutting And Breaking Inc which reaffirmed that the statute of limitations on an employee's wage claim is tolled when the employee's wage claim is under investigation by Washington Department of Labor and Industries even if the employee proceeds to file a lawsuit in court while the investigation is ongoing and is not concluded. 

In this case, an employee filed a wage complaint with Washington Department of Labor and Industries and, during the course of the Department's investigation, the employee filed a lawsuit in court.  Therefore, the Department never concluded its investigation.  The employer argued that since the Department never concluded its investigation, the employee could not take advantage of the tolling of the statute of limitations.  The Court of Appeals disagreed.   

Tolling is a legal doctrine that allows for the pausing or delaying of the running of the period of time set forth by a statute of limitations, such that a lawsuit may potentially be filed even after the statute of limitations has run. Tolling provisions benefit a plaintiff by extending the time period in which a Plaintiff is permitted to bring suit.

The statute of limitations applicable to an employee wage claims is three years. RCW 4.16.080(3). Washington law provides that the Department “shall investigate” a wage complaint filed with the Department. RCW 49.48.083(1). It “shall issue either a citation and notice of assessment or a determination of compliance” unless the wage complaint is “otherwise resolved.” Id. If the Department finds a violation, it issues a citation and notice of assessment that is served on the employer and employee. Id. An employer aggrieved by a citation and notice of assessment has 30 days within which to file a notice of appeal with the department director, failing which the citation and notice of assessment become final and binding. RCW 49.48.084(1).

Having issued the citation and notice of assessment, the Department may order the employer to pay the complaining employee all wages owed for the three years preceding the filing of the wage complaint, including interest of one percent per month on the wages owed. RCW 49.48.083(2). Payment by the employer and acceptance by the employee of the wages and interest assessed by the Department bars the employee from initiating and pursuing any court action based on the wage payment requirements addressed in the citation and notice of assessment. RCW 49.48.083(4).

A wage complainant who receives his or her copy of a citation and notice of assessment served by the Department on the employer is permitted by RCW 49.48.085(1) to terminate the Department's administrative action by providing written notice to the Department within 10 business days. The statute goes on to provide in its subsection (3)(a) that “[n]othing in this section shall be construed to limit or affect ... [t]he right of any employee to pursue any judicial, administrative, or other action available with respect to an employer.”

The statutory language on which the tolling issue turns, RCW 49.48.083(5) provides,The applicable statute of limitations for civil actions is tolled during the department's investigation of an employee's wage complaint against an employer.” It then more particularly identifies the beginning and end of the tolling period, as follows: “For the purposes of this subsection, the department's investigation begins on the date the employee files the wage complaint with the department and ends when: (a) The wage complaint is finally determined through a final and binding citation and notice of assessment or determination of compliance; or (b) the department notifies the employer and the employee in writing that the wage complaint has been otherwise resolved or that the employee has elected to terminate the department's administrative action under RCW 49.48.085.

The Court of Appeals held that if an employee files a wage complaint with the Department and then files a civil action while the investigation is pending, RCW 49.48.083(5), reasonably construed, tolls the statute of limitations until the Department resolves the complaint or the civil action is completed, at which point the Department can send notice that the matter has been “otherwise resolved.”

Our firm represents employers defending wage claims and Department of Labor and Industries investigations.  Also, if need be, we litigate on behalf of employers before the Department of Labor and Industries as well as in federal courts, Washington courts and administrative hearings defending against wage claims.  Please contact our firm with any questions, we will provide a free consultation.