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Is a Bonus a ‘Wage’?: Not According to a Recent Connecticut Supreme Court Decision

Is a Bonus a ‘Wage’?:  Not According to a Recent Connecticut Supreme Court Decision

Are you currently employed in Connecticut and have been promised a year-end bonus or had been promised a year-end bonus and never received it?   A recent Connecticut Supreme Court decision may affect the amount of protection you are afforded under Connecticut law if your employer defaults or has defaulted on that promise.

This recent case addressed the question of whether a year-end bonus promised by an employer is considered a ‘wage’ for the purposes of the Connecticut Wage Act.  Answering that question in the negative, the Supreme Court denied a Connecticut employee the ability to proceed with a wrongful withholding of wages claim that he had initially pursued after his employer failed to pay out what the employee had thought to be a promised year-end bonus.

Under this decided Supreme Court case, the amount of liability your employer will face for failing to pay out a promised year-end bonus will hinge upon how your employer defined the conditions under which a bonus would be paid.  If the conditions are specific goals set for you as an individual employee (e.g. a certain number of billable hours need to be reached), then under the Connecticut Wage Act your employer will be required to pay out that bonus as wages in accordance with their promise.  If they do not, you are afforded the protections of the Wage Act and can bring an action against your employer for wrongfully withholding wages.  If successful, it is possible that you could receive, by way of damages, twice the full amount of your bonus and any attorney fees incurred in pursuing the action.  In addition, due to the serious nature of such an offense, your employer could potentially be fined and/or imprisoned for their actions.

Unfortunately, however, if your employer was more ambiguous about the requisite conditions for a bonus, under this new case law, it is likely that they will be able to avoid liability for wrongfully withholding your wages.  If that is the case, while you can still pursue other causes of action against your employer, you will not be able to receive twice the full amount of your bonus or attorney fees.

The events of this recently decided case unfolded as follows:   At the beginning of the employment relationship between an employee and a Connecticut law firm, the parties agreed that the employee’s annual compensation would consist of a base salary and a year-end bonus.  The employment contract called for this year-end bonus to be based on factors such as seniority, business generation, productivity, professional ability, pro bono work, and loyalty to the firm.  The employee remained at the firm for several years and each year he received his salary and the promised year-end bonus.  When the employee left the firm he discovered that he was not going to receive the year-end bonus for that last year of his employment.  To try and recover what he had thought was a promised bonus; the employee commenced an action against his employer alleging breach of contract and wrongful withholding of wages.

The trial court dismissed the wrongful withholding of wages claim, determining that the year-end bonus was not ‘wages’ as defined by the Connecticut Wage Act.  The breach of contract claim, however, went to trial.  The Trial Court found in favor of the employee and awarded him damages in the amount of his year-end bonus plus interest.  On appeal, the Appellate Court upheld the Trial Court’s finding as to the breach of contract claim but reversed the Trial Court’s decision to dismiss the wrongful withholdings of wages claim.  The Appellate Court determined that the structure of the agreement as to the year-end bonus meant that the bonus could have been classified as ‘wages’ under the Connecticut Wage Act and therefore held that the employee could proceed with his wrongful withholding of wages claim.

The issue of the wrongful withholdings of wages claim was appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court where the Court decided that because the employee’s bonus was discretionary, (not ascertainable by applying a formula) it did not constitute ‘wages’ under the Connecticut Wage Act.  The employee, therefore, was not able to proceed with his wrongful withholding of wages claim.

Although the employee did recover some monetary damages through his breach of contract claim, it was not anywhere near as much as he would have received if he had been able to proceed with his wrongful withholding of wages action.

It is quite possible that after the release of this opinion many employers will revisit their bonus policies to make the language a little less precise or announce that their bonuses are discretionary in order to take advantage of the protections afforded under this recent case.  It is important, therefore, that as an employee you are aware of what kind of bonus you have been promised so that you know how strongly to rely on that promised bonus and what options are available to you if the employer refuses to pay.

If you have already been denied your year-end bonus and believe that it was a discretionary bonus, there are still ways in which you can potentially recover that lost income, such as the breach of contract claim pursued by the employee in this recent case.  If you have been denied a year-end bonus that was not discretionary and you had met the required conditions for receiving that bonus, you are still protected under the Connecticut Wage Act and can bring a wrongful withholding of wages action against your employer.  This action may allow you to receive damages in the amount double your bonus and possibly receive any incurred attorney fees.

If you have any questions regarding employment and labor law in Connecticut, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He can be reached at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com. Mr. Maya handles cases involving employment contracts, separation agreements, non-competition agreements, restrictive covenants, union arbitrations, and employment discrimination cases in New York and Connecticut.

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When is A Non-Compete Geographical Limitation Unreasonable?

In Braman Chemical Enterprise, Inc. v. Barnes, 2006 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3753, Ms. Valerie Barnes worked as an exterminator for Braman Chemical Enterprises, Inc. from November 5, 1990, to April 26, 2006.  On October 24, 1990, in preparation for Ms. Barnes beginning to work, the parties executed a non-compete agreement titled “Restriction Against Other Employment After Termination of Work With Braman Chemical Enterprises, Inc.” where it stated that Ms. Barnes was prohibited from working at any branch of a pest control business within fifty miles of the Hartford City Hall for a period of six months.  The company provided pest control services to commercial and residential customers in approximately ninety percent of Connecticut’s towns and cities.  Ms. Barnes worked the majority of her career with Braman servicing the area defined as east of New Haven, west of Guilford, south of Meriden, and north of the Long Island Sound.  She received training for her operator’s license while employed by Braman but obtained her supervisor’s license on her own time and at her own expense.

On April 26, 2006, Ms. Barnes voluntarily terminated her employment at Braman and formed a Connecticut limited liability company called “Bug One, LLC” based in Hamden that provided substantially identical services as her previous employer.  Braman sued Ms. Barnes in Connecticut state court to enforce the non-compete and enjoin her from further violations of the restrictive covenant’s provisions.  Ms. Barnes asserted that the geographical limitation in the agreement was unreasonable and provided an unnecessary amount of protection for Braman.

The court found Ms. Barnes’ argument to be meritorious and denied Braman’s request to enforce the agreement.  A non-compete agreement is analyzed in its entirety but a single unreasonable provision can be sufficient to invalidate the entire agreement and prevent enforcement.  Connecticut courts have traditionally tended to apply greater scrutiny to a non-compete agreement that creates a general restriction on a geographical area than agreements that focus simply on doing business with the employer’s clients.  Employers are legally allowed to protect themselves in a “reasonably limited market area” but may not overreach to the degree that the restriction prevents the former employee from practicing his or her trade in order to make a living.  While Braman contended that the geographical limitation was reasonably tailored to meet its legitimate business needs, the court held that the provision went well beyond the “fair protection of plaintiff’s [Braman’s] interests”.  The geographical area of fifty miles from Hartford City Hall placed an unreasonable restraint on trade for Ms. Barnes.  The court notes that the prohibited area covered roughly two million potential customers and an area of 7,850 square miles, covering parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York.  To put this in perspective, the entire state of Connecticut is only 5,018 square miles.  This area as defined in the non-compete agreement was thus an unreasonable limitation and sufficient cause to invalidate the entire agreement.

The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable employment and corporate law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County.  If you have any questions relating to your non-compete agreement or would like to discuss any element of your employment agreement, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. by phone at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.