Rice v. Multimedia, Inc., No. 24216

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtCHANDLER
Citation456 S.E.2d 381,318 S.C. 95
Parties2 Wage & Hour Cas.2d (BNA) 1149 James Paul RICE, Appellant-Respondent, v. MULTIMEDIA, INC., Respondent-Appellant. . Heard
Docket NumberNo. 24216
Decision Date03 November 1994

Page 381

456 S.E.2d 381
2 Wage & Hour Cas.2d (BNA) 1149
James Paul RICE, Appellant-Respondent,
v.
MULTIMEDIA, INC., Respondent-Appellant.
No. 24216.
Supreme Court of South Carolina.
Heard Nov. 3, 1994.
Decided March 27, 1995.

Page 382

William McBee Smith, Spartanburg, for appellant-respondent.

William D. Herlong, Greenville, for respondent-appellant.

CHANDLER, Chief Justice:

Appellant/Respondent James Paul Rice (Rice) and Respondent/Appellant Multimedia, Inc. (Multimedia) appeal a jury verdict awarding Rice partial recovery in his action for wages due. We affirm.

FACTS

In 1983, Rice was hired as a radio advertising salesperson for WFBC AM/FM, a division of Multimedia. In 1989, Rice also began employment as National Sales Manager for the Clemson Sports Network (CSN), another division of Multimedia. In June 1990, he was terminated.

Rice filed suit, demanding payment for commissions due on seven contracts, three of which covered local advertising for WFBC and four of which covered advertising for CSN. WFBC's employee handbook provided that sales commissions would be paid to a departing employee only for those advertisements sold by the employee and actually broadcast through the end of the month in which the employee worked his last day. Pursuant to this departure policy, Multimedia refused to pay commissions on the above seven contracts since the advertisements had not been broadcast.

Trial Court granted Multimedia directed verdict on the three contracts covering local advertising for WFBC. The jury returned a verdict for Rice on the remaining contracts for violation of the Wage Payment Act 1, awarding damages of $16,605.45. It also found Multimedia guilty of breach of contract, but awarded no damages to Rice.

Pursuant to § 41-10-80(C) of the Wage Payment Act, Rice petitioned for treble damages and attorney's fees. Trial Court denied the petition for treble damages and awarded partial attorney's fees. Both Rice and Multimedia appeal.

ISSUES

A. Rice's Appeal:

1. Was Rice entitled to treble damages pursuant to S.C.Code Ann. § 41-10-80(C)?

2. Is Multimedia's commission policy void as against public policy?

3. Was Rice entitled to an award of full attorney's fees?

Page 383

B. Multimedia's Appeal:

1. Did WFBC's departure policy apply to the four contracts covering advertising on CSN, thereby entitling Multimedia to directed verdict?

2. Was Rice entitled to recovery under the Wage Payment Act?

3. Was Rice entitled to attorney's fees?

DISCUSSION

A. Rice's Appeal

1. Treble Damages

Section 41-10-80(C) of the Wage Payment Act states:

In case of any failure to pay wages due to an employee as required by Section 41-10-40 or 41-10-50 the employee may recover in a civil action an amount equal to three times the full amount of the unpaid wages, plus costs and reasonable attorney's fees as the court may allow. Any civil action for the recovery of wages must be commenced within three years after the wages become due. [Emphasis supplied].

Trial Court declined to treble the damages, holding that the provision did not apply to employers who withhold wages in good faith. Rice contends that the treble damage provision is mandatory, not discretionary and, therefore, is not subject to any good faith exceptions. We disagree.

It is well settled that the words of a statute will be given their plain and ordinary meaning. Miller v. Doe, 441 S.E.2d 319 (1994). Here, the statute explicitly provides that the employee "may" recover treble damages. "The use of the word 'may' signifies permission and generally means that the action spoken of is optional or discretionary." State v. Wilson, 274 S.C. 352, 356, 264 S.E.2d 414, 416 (1980). Thus, by using "may", rather than "shall", the legislature has provided that the penalty is discretionary with the judge. This interpretation accords with the purpose of the Wage Payment Act, to wit: to protect employees from the unjustified and wilful retention of wages by the employer. The imposition of treble damages in those cases where there is a bona fide dispute would be unjust and harsh. See Bradshaw v. Jayco Enterprises, 212 Kan. 206, 510 P.2d 174 (1973); Klondike Industries Corp. v. Gibson, 741 P.2d 1161 (Alaska 1987).

In Apache East, Inc. v. Wiegand, 119 Ariz. 308, 580 P.2d 769 (Ct.App.1978), the Court of Appeals of Arizona reached the same conclusion that an employer is not liable for penalties under a wage payment statute when there is a good faith dispute between employee and employer. 2 We find the language of Apache East compelling here:

As a policy matter this appear just to all parties. If there is a dispute over unpaid wages the employer acts at his peril and the court in its discretion may award treble damages when the withholding was unreasonable and there was no good faith wage dispute. However, there are some wage disputes when the issue may involve a valid close question of law or fact which should properly be decided by the courts. We do not believe the legislature intended to deter the...

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  • Spirax Sarco, Inc. v. SSI Eng'g, Inc., No. 5:14–CV–519–F.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • August 10, 2015
    ...designed to "protect employees from the unjustified and wilful retention of wages by the employer." Rice v. Multimedia, Inc., 318 S.C. 95, 456 S.E.2d 381, 383 (1995). The Act provides employees in South Carolina with a cause of action to recover for an employer's "failure to ......
  • Armstrong v. School Dist. Five, Lexington, Richland, No. Civ.A. 3:997-903-0.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
    • October 15, 1998
    ...Court of South Carolina has determined that public policy requires enforcement of contractual obligations. See, Rice v. Multimedia, Inc., 318 S.C. 95, 456 S.E.2d 381 (S.C.1995); Warren v. Pilgrim Health & Life Insur. Co., 217 S.C. 453, 60 S.E.2d 891, 893 (S.C.1950). For this reason, pub......
  • Barton v. House of Raeford Farms, Inc., Nos. 12–1943
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • March 11, 2014
    ...Act was designed to “protect employees from the unjustified and wilful retention of wages by the employer.” Rice v. Multimedia, Inc., 318 S.C. 95, 456 S.E.2d 381, 383 (1995). The Act provides employees in South Carolina with a cause of action to recover for an employer's “failure to pay wag......
  • Jones v. General Elec. Co., No. 2839.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • May 4, 1998
    ...case should be submitted to the jury. Gamble v. Int'l Paper Realty Corp., 323 S.C. 367, 474 S.E.2d 438 (1996); Rice v. Multimedia, Inc., 318 S.C. 95, 456 S.E.2d 381 (1995). See also Creech v. South Carolina Wildlife & Marine Resources Dep't, 328 S.C. 24, 491 S.E.2d 571 (1997) (in ruling......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
40 cases
  • Spirax Sarco, Inc. v. SSI Eng'g, Inc., No. 5:14–CV–519–F.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • August 10, 2015
    ...designed to "protect employees from the unjustified and wilful retention of wages by the employer." Rice v. Multimedia, Inc., 318 S.C. 95, 456 S.E.2d 381, 383 (1995). The Act provides employees in South Carolina with a cause of action to recover for an employer's "failure to ......
  • Armstrong v. School Dist. Five, Lexington, Richland, No. Civ.A. 3:997-903-0.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
    • October 15, 1998
    ...Court of South Carolina has determined that public policy requires enforcement of contractual obligations. See, Rice v. Multimedia, Inc., 318 S.C. 95, 456 S.E.2d 381 (S.C.1995); Warren v. Pilgrim Health & Life Insur. Co., 217 S.C. 453, 60 S.E.2d 891, 893 (S.C.1950). For this reason, pub......
  • Barton v. House of Raeford Farms, Inc., Nos. 12–1943
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • March 11, 2014
    ...Act was designed to “protect employees from the unjustified and wilful retention of wages by the employer.” Rice v. Multimedia, Inc., 318 S.C. 95, 456 S.E.2d 381, 383 (1995). The Act provides employees in South Carolina with a cause of action to recover for an employer's “failure to pay wag......
  • Jones v. General Elec. Co., No. 2839.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • May 4, 1998
    ...case should be submitted to the jury. Gamble v. Int'l Paper Realty Corp., 323 S.C. 367, 474 S.E.2d 438 (1996); Rice v. Multimedia, Inc., 318 S.C. 95, 456 S.E.2d 381 (1995). See also Creech v. South Carolina Wildlife & Marine Resources Dep't, 328 S.C. 24, 491 S.E.2d 571 (1997) (in ruling......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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