On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 345 N.J. Super. 231 (2001).
The issue before the Court is whether a two or a six-year statute-of-limitations period applies to an employee's private cause of action for underpayment of the wages required by the Prevailing Wage Act (the Act).
Steven Wittek was employed by Extel Communications, Inc. from September 1989 through October 1993 as a cable installer in the Passaic County Administration Building in Patterson, New Jersey. Shortly after the conclusion of his employment, Wittek filed a protest with the New Jersey Department of Labor (the Department), alleging that Extel had not paid him the full amount of wages required under the Act.
The Department conducted an investigation and found that Extel had underpaid Wittek and six other employees a total of $27,788.46. The amount of underpayment to Wittek was $9,755.23. In May 1994, the Department assessed Extel and the general contractor, Prismatic Development Corporation, the additional wages allegedly owed to the seven employees, as well as $5,278.85 in administrative penalties and fees. Extel and Prismatic contested the assessed fees and requested an administrative hearing. Prior to that hearing, the parties entered a settlement agreement, under which Excel agreed to pay $8,000 in exchange for dismissal of the Department's claims. Wittek received $5,000 from the Department, the balance going toward administrative penalties and fees. The Stipulation of Settlement specifically provided that the Department does not waive any rights former employees may have to pursue individual claims against Extel and Prismatic.
On June 22, 1999, Wittek and another employee, Michael Troise, filed a complaint in the Law Division against Extel, Prismatic, the Department, and a surety company, seeking the full amount of additional wages allegedly owed them for the work they performed. The trial court granted the Department's motion to dismis s the complaint for failure to state a cause of action. Wittek and Troise filed a motion for summary judgment against the other defendants and Extel filed a cross-motion to dismiss on the ground that the complaint should have been filed within two years from the time they finished working on the building.
The trial court granted the cross motion, dismissing the complaint as untimely filed. Only Wittek appealed to the Appellate Division, which reversed, concluding that an employee has six years to bring a claim for additional wages under the Act.
In reaching its decision, the Appellate Division noted that an employee who is paid less than the prevailing wage on a public work covered by the Act has two statutory remedies. First, the employee can file a protest with the Commissioner of Labor objecting to the amount of wages paid. If the Commissioner finds that the employer has failed to pay the prevailing wage, he can, among other things, assess administrative penalties. In addition, the employee can recover in a civil action the full amount of the prevailing wage less the amount actually paid to him or her together with costs and reasonable attorney's fees. The Act does not require that the employee who claims to have received less than the prevailing wage elect one or the other of these remedies or seek administrative relief through the department before filing a civil suit.
The Appellate Division noted that the Act does not contain an express time limitation; therefore, the court sought to apply the general limitations period governing the category of claim. The Appellate Division concluded that Wittek's claim for additional wages based on Extel's violation of the Act clearly was a claim for breach of contract or other economic harm, entitling Wittek to a six-year limitations period. The court rejected Extel's argument that the appropriate limitations period was two years, noting that the legislative directive as to the limitations period for initiation of administrative proceedings does not control the time for filing of an action in Superior Court.
In addition, the court rejected Extel's argument that the Prevailing Wage Act should be treated the same as the Wage and Hour Law, which has a two-year statute of limitations, because the statutes have similar purposes. The court found that these are separate and distinct legislative enactments that do not require identical limitations periods.
HELD: Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED substantially for the reasons expressed in the opinion below. An employee has six years to bring a claim for additional wages under the Prevailing Wage Act.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN, LONG, VERNIERO, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI and ALBIN join in this PER CURIAM opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Per Curiam
(NOTE: This Court wrote no full opinion in this case. Rather, the Court's affirmance of the judgment of the Appellate Division is based substantially on the reasons ...