Director Liability Under the Massachusetts Wage Act: The Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies the Law but Traps May Remain for the Unwary
by Mark D. Finsterwald
In Segal v. Genitrix, 478 Mass. 551 (2017), the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) addressed whether members of a company’s board of directors may be personally liable under the Massachusetts Wage Act, G.L. c. 149, §§ 148, 150, for the company’s failure to pay wages to employees. In Segal, the SJC interpreted, for the first time, language in the Wage Act defining “employer” in the context of directors. The SJC held that the Wage Act does not impose liability on directors acting only in their capacity as directors. Even so, the Court did not fully insulate directors from Wage Act liability. There remains a possibility that directors could, perhaps unwittingly, become subject to personal liability in the event a company fails to pay wages.
The Wage Act
The Wage Act enables employees to sue employers who do not pay earned wages, with mandatory awards of treble damages and attorney’s fees for successful claims. Liability is not limited to the business entity, as the Wage Act defines “employer” to include “the president and treasurer of a corporation and any officers or agents having the management of such corporation.” This definition does not mention directors. Nor does it explain how to assess whether a person is an “agent having the management of such corporation.” G.L. c. 149, § 148.
Facts and Procedural History
Plaintiff Andrew Segal was the president of Genitrix, LLC, a biotechnology startup that he cofounded with defendant H. Fisk Johnson, III. Johnson was also an investor in Genitrix, and he appointed his representative, defendant Stephen Rose, to the company’s board of directors. Johnson funded Genitrix through a company called Fisk, which Johnson and Rose co-owned. Segal, as president, managed all of Genitrix’s day-to-day operations, including payroll.
In 2006, Genitrix began to have difficulty making payroll. Starting in 2007, Segal stopped taking salary to enable the company to meet its other financial commitments. Rose later declined to direct Fisk to invest enough money in Genitrix to pay Segal. In early 2009, Segal initiated Wage Act litigation against Johnson and Rose.
At trial, the judge instructed the jury that “a person qualifies as an ‘agent having the management of such corporation’ if he … controls, directs, and participates to a substantial degree in formulating and determining policy of the corporation or LLC.” The judge did not instruct the jury that the defendants needed to have been appointed as agents. Nor did the judge instruct the jury that defendants needed to have assumed responsibilities functionally equivalent to those of a president or treasurer. The jury found both defendants liable for Segal’s unpaid salary. Johnson and Rose moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, the trial court denied the motion, and Johnson and Rose appealed.
The SJC’s Analysis
At the outset, the Court stated that it viewed as significant the Legislature’s omission of directors from the Wage Act’s definition of “employer.” Segal, 478 Mass. at 558. Parsing the statutory language, the SJC dismissed the possibility that either defendant could be liable as president, treasurer, or any other officer, because neither of them held an office at Genitrix. Johnson and Rose could be liable only if they were “agents having the management” of the company. The Court explained that this language establishes “two important requirements: the defendant must both be an agent and have the management of the company.” Id. at 559. The Court differentiated between having some management responsibility and “having the management” of the company. “Having the management” means assuming responsibility similar to that performed by a corporation’s president or treasurer, the Court reasoned, “particularly in regard to the control of finances or payment of wages.”
As to agency, common law agency principles—set forth in the Restatement (Second) of Agency—counsel that directors are not typically considered agents. Restatement (Second) of Agency § 14C (1958). The SJC observed that “[a] board generally acts collectively, not individually.” Segal, 478 Mass. at 561. Such collective action does not confer individual agency authority on directors. Nevertheless, the Court explained that individual directors still could be “considered agents of the corporation if they are empowered to act as such, but any agency relationship stems from their appointment as an agent, not from their position as a director….” Id. at 563. An agency appointment could result from a board resolution, but also could “arise from either express or implied consent.” The Court gave as an example a scenario in which “a particular board member had been empowered to act individually as the functional equivalent of the president or treasurer of the corporation.” Genitrix, however, made no such appointment with respect to either defendant, instead delegating executive management authority (including dominion over wages) to Segal. Segal signed the checks, oversaw the payroll, and suspended the payment of his salary. Defendants had no such authority.
Moreover, just as a board’s collective authority over a corporation does not confer agency authority on an individual director, a board’s collective “oversight and control over management, finances, and policy is not oversight and control by individual board members.” Id. at 565. The Court noted that, since corporate statutes vest all management responsibility in a corporation’s board, if board members were to be considered agents and normal board oversight were considered “management,” then all directors would be personally liable under the Wage Act. That result would be inconsistent with the plain wording of the statute.
The Segal defendants’ participation in difficult board decisions that affected the company’s finances were not the acts of individual agents, did not involve the type of ordinary decisions left to individual managers, and did not confer Wage Act liability. Accordingly, the SJC determined that the trial court should have allowed defendants’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
In addition to adjudicating the claim against Johnson and Rose, the SJC also provided guidance for instructing future juries. The Court explained that judges should instruct juries that there are two requirements for a defendant to qualify as an employer under the Wage Act: (1) the defendant must be an officer or agent; and (2) the defendant must have the management of the company. The Court cautioned that juries should be instructed that directors are not agents simply by being directors, and the collective powers of the board are distinct from the powers of individual directors. As to “having the management,” courts should instruct juries that the Wage Act imposes liability on the president, the treasurer, and other officers or agents who perform management responsibilities similar to a president or treasurer, “particularly in regard to the control of finances or the payment of wages.” Id. at 570.
Lessons for Directors and Corporate Advisors
After Segal, it is difficult, but not impossible, to establish Wage Act liability on the part of individual directors. Directors should be aware that they still may face personal liability (with attendant mandatory treble damages and fee shifting) if they are found to be agents of the corporation who performed responsibilities similar to that of a president or treasurer. Consequently, boards and their advisors should take precautionary measures to reduce the risk to directors.
Corporate counsel would be wise to include in companies’ governing documents language stating that individual directors are not authorized to speak or act on behalf of the company. Counsel should then advise boards to abide by such language in practice. While it is common for boards to delegate tasks and authority to particular directors or committees, counsel should screen such delegations carefully to ensure that they cannot reasonably be construed as conferring management or agency authority. Counsel also would be wise to monitor initiatives that might not expressly delegate agency authority but could be deemed to do so by implication.
To the extent a board bestows management or agency authority on individual directors or committees of directors, that authority should be limited to discrete issues. More importantly, that authority should not encroach on officer control over finances and wages. For example, individual directors should not have check-writing authority, control over payroll, or authority to approve or deny wage payments.
Overall, counsel should be vigilant in ensuring that boards and board committees, including compensation committees, exercise their oversight function collectively, with such collective action formally recorded. These steps would help directors perform their fiduciary responsibilities with less risk of personal liability under the Wage Act.
Mark D. Finsterwald is an associate at Foley Hoag LLP and a member of the firm’s litigation department. He focuses his practice in the area of complex business litigation.