CHARLESTON – State employees can sue for unpaid wages just like other workers, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has ruled.
The Justices on Sept. 16 reversed Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky, who held that the West Virginia Constitution protects the government from wage claims.
The Justices also clarified that any worker, state or otherwise, can choose between submitting a wage claim to the Department of Labor and filing suit in circuit court.
Stucky held that workers must exhaust administrative remedies before suing.
The decision allows James Beichler, former physics professor at West Virginia University in Parkersburg, to proceed with a suit for $26,568.
He started working at the university in 2001. In addition to regular salary he drew extra pay under "faculty overload" contracts.
In 2007, the university denied him tenure and terminated him effective in 2008.
The university blamed declining enrollment in physics classes.
Beichler sued the university six months after his job ended, seeking back payments under his overload contracts.
The university moved to dismiss, claiming the constitution grants the state sovereign immunity from civil suits.
The university argued that even if immunity didn't apply, Beichler should have filed his claim at the Department of Labor.
Stucky agreed on both points, but the Justices reversed him on both.
Justice Menis Ketchum wrote that the constitution does not bar a
state employee's claim for unpaid wages under the West Virginia Wage Payment and Collection Act.
He quoted a decision from 1995 that, "the sovereign immunity doctrine is not implicated in the context of employee relations where the state, acting through its agents, as an employer, has unlawfully withheld all or a part of an employee's salary."
He quoted a decision from 2000 that, "the Legislature did not intend to bind private employers to certain wage payment and collection guidelines designed to protect workers, yet exclude state and political subdivision workers from such protections."
To dispose of the university's other argument, Ketchum quoted a declaration in the wage law that a person "may bring any legal action necessary to collect a claim."
He wrote, "Beichler argues that if the West Virginia Legislature, in drafting that section, had intended that claimants be required to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing an action against an employer for unpaid wages, the Legislature could have so provided."
He wrote, "This Court finds Beichler's position in the matter persuasive."
Walt Auvil of Parkersburg represented Beichler. Jendonnae Houdyschell, senior assistant to Attorney General Darrell McGraw, represented the university.
The West Virginia Employment Lawyers Association had urged the Justices to reverse Stucky, claiming his decision left state employees at the mercy of the state.