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Hernandez v. Ray Domenico Farms, Inc.

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

March 5, 2018

Adolfo Hernandez, Rogelio Flores-Escobar, Francisco Silva-Garcia, Martin Perez-Medel, Gustavo Arellano-Olmos, Luis Leon-Salinas, and Manuel Morales, Plaintiffs
Ray Domenico Farms, Inc.; Gregory L. Domenico; and Theresa M. Domenico. Defendants

         United States District Court for the District of Colorado Case No. 16-CV-1929-WJM-CBS

          Attorneys for Plaintiffs: The Kelman Buescher Firm Andrew H. Turner Ashley K. Boothby Denver, Colorado Colorado Legal Services: Migrant Farm Workers Division Jenifer Rodriguez Matthew Baca Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Defendants: The Litigation Boutique LLC Leah P. VanLandschoot Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Colorado Civil Justice League: Husch Blackwell LLP Christopher L. Ottele Sonia Anderson Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Amici Curiae Southern Poverty Law Center, Farmworker Justice, El Centro Humanitario Para Los Trabajadores, and Plaintiff Employment Lawyers Association: Law Office of David Lichtenstein, LLC David Lichtenstein Matt Molinaro Kristina Rosett Denver, Colorado


          HART, JUSTICE.

         ¶1 We accepted jurisdiction under C.A.R. 21.1 to answer a certified question of law from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado regarding how far back in time a terminated employee's unpaid wage claims can reach under the Colorado Wage Claim Act, §§ 8-4-101 to -123, C.R.S. (2017). Answering this question requires us to examine the interaction among three provisions of the law. Under section 8-4-103 ("section 103"), employers must pay employees at regular intervals during their employment. Section 8-4-109 ("section 109") requires employers to pay employees upon termination for unpaid wages or compensation. Under the Wage Claim Act's statute of limitations, "all actions" must be commenced within two years (three for willful violations), "and not after that time." § 8-4-122, C.R.S. (2017). The certified question asks:

Does Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-4-109(1)(a) permit a terminated employee to sue for wages or compensation that went unpaid at any time during the employee's employment, even when the statute of limitations (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-4-122) has run on the cause of action the employee could have brought for those unpaid wages under Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-4-103(1)(a)?

         We hold that under the plain language of section 109, an employee may seek any wages or compensation that were unpaid at the time of termination; however, the right to seek such wages or compensation is subject to the statute of limitations. That statute of limitations begins to run when the wages or compensation first become due and payable and thus limits a terminated employee to claims for the two (or three) years immediately preceding termination. Thus, we answer the certified question in the negative.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 Defendant Ray Domenico Farms, Inc.[1] grows organic vegetables in Platteville, Colorado. Plaintiffs are three year-round and four seasonal migrant workers who had been previously employed by Domenico Farms from as far back as 1992. All of the Plaintiffs were paid by the hour, and allege that they never received overtime pay during their employment with Domenico Farms. While agricultural workers are generally exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act's ("FLSA") overtime requirements, see generally 29 C.F.R. pt. 780 (2017), Plaintiffs allege that they performed non-agricultural tasks in weeks in which they worked more than forty hours. Thus, Plaintiffs allege that they were entitled to overtime wages under the FLSA for those weeks. See 29 C.F.R. § 780.11 (2017) ("Where an employee in the same workweek performs work which is exempt under one section of the Act and also engages in work to which the Act applies but is not exempt under some other section of the Act, he is not exempt that week, and the wage and hour requirements of the Act are applicable."). The four seasonal-worker Plaintiffs also allege that they were denied the Adverse Effect Wage Rate hourly wages they should have received under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act ("AWPA"). In January 2016, several of the Plaintiffs wrote a letter to Defendants in which they asserted that they had not been properly paid wages under both of these federal laws. By April 2016, all of the Plaintiffs had been terminated.

         ¶3 Plaintiffs brought suit in July 2016 in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado alleging, in pertinent part, violations of the FLSA, the AWPA, and the Colorado Wage Claim Act ("the Act"). The parties filed cross-motions for partial summary judgment on the issue of whether section 109 allows a terminated employee to seek all wages that have been unpaid during the employment-even those that might seem to be time-barred because they became due and payable more than two (or three) years earlier. Judge William J. Martinez concluded that, as there are "at least two plausible interpretations of section 109" and the outcome of the decision was "of enormous importance" to employers and employees in Colorado, it was appropriate to sua sponte certify the question to this court. We accepted jurisdiction.

         II. Analysis

         ¶4 Plaintiffs argue that, under section 109 of the Act, employees are entitled to seek any unpaid wages or compensation earned during the course of their employment, as the statute of limitations begins to run on their section 109 claim only upon the termination of the employment relationship. The section 109 claim, they argue, revives a terminated employee's right to seek unpaid wages that he would be time-barred from receiving if he were still employed and bringing a suit under section 103. Defendant argues that section 109 allows a terminated employee to collect wages only due as part of the final paycheck. Neither of these arguments is consistent with the statutory language and structure. We agree that the plain language of section 109 allows employees to seek both the wages or compensation that only become due and payable at ...

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