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College gets “schooled” on wages and handbooks

Whitworth College was sued by Dr. Mega after he was terminated from a tenured position as a professor. At the heart of Dr. Mega’s claim was whether Whitworth complied with promises made in its handbook when he was terminated. Dr. Mega contended that he was wrongfully terminated because Whitworth failed to follow informal and formal termination procedures set forth in the faculty employment handbook. In addition, Mega argued that, according to the handbook, he should have been paid by the college while he was on suspension pending termination. The college felt it had an independent basis not to comply with the faculty handbook when terminating Mega and, therefore, was not obligated to pay Dr. Mega while he was on suspension pending termination.

On appeal, the appellate court felt that promises made in the handbook, of specific treatment in the event of termination, had to be honored, including the promise to pay wages while Dr. Mega was on suspension pending termination. By failing to pay Dr. Mega his wages, the court found the college to have engaged in a willful withholding of wages that entitled him to an award of double the wages owed, together with his attorney’s fees and costs.

The Bottom Line:

The college should have learned two (2) lessons from this case. The first lesson is that, before you take action against an employee, make sure your actions are consistent with statements made in your handbook. Too often employers make lofty promises of how they will handle discipline and termination only to ignore them at a later date. The second, and perhaps most important, is that wage and hour claims can result in huge financial losses to an employer. Under Washington law, employees who are denied their wages, or are underpaid, can sue their employer for double the wages they are owed in addition to their attorney’s fees and costs.

Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice or to form an attorney client relationship. The information provided is general in nature. Nothing can substitute for a consultation with a legal professional who can address your particular legal concern.

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