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Genexion, Inc. v. Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training

Superior Court of Rhode Island

May 25, 2016

GENEXION, INC.
v.
RHODE ISLAND DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND TRAINING, DIVISION OF LABOR STANDARDS, and CAROL A. LEWIS-CULLINAN

         Providence County Superior Court

          For Plaintiff: Melissa A. Thomson, Esq. Patricia E. Andrews, Esq. Daniel T. Angelone, Esq.

          For Defendant: Michael L. Mineau, Esq. David S. Francazio, Esq. Mary Ellen McQueeney-Lally, Esq.

          DECISION

          MCGUIRL, J.

         Before the Court is a Motion for Assessment of Attorney's Fees, Prejudgment Interest, and Costs filed by Carol A. Lewis-Cullinan (Ms. Lewis-Cullinan), following this Court's denial of an appeal taken by Genexion, Inc. (Genexion) from a decision of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (the DLT).[1] Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15 and chapter 14 of title 28 of the Rhode Island General Laws, entitled "Payment of Wages" (Wages Act).

         I

         Facts & Travel

         This case involves a successful claim for unpaid vacation wages filed by Ms. Lewis-Cullinan against Genexion, her former employer, with the DLT. A detailed recitation of the underlying facts may be found in Genexion, Inc. v. R.I. Dep't of Labor & Training, C.A. No. PC-2011-1625 (R.I. Super. Ct., filed Sept. 3, 2014); accordingly, this Court will provide only a brief narration of the pertinent facts.

         Ms. Lewis-Cullinan worked for Genexion as Senior Executive Director of North America Operations from October 1, 2006 until October 9, 2009. An Employment Agreement governing her employment during that period provided, inter alia, that she was entitled to a maximum of five weeks of vacation time per year, and that she could carry over four weeks of vacation time from year to year. The Employment Agreement also provided that she would be paid a lump sum for any accrued vacation time within thirty days of termination.

         Upon her leaving the company, Ms. Lewis-Cullinan requested a payout of 225.06 hours of vacation wages accrued. Genexion made a one-time payment of $5000 on November 16, 2009, and requested that Ms. Lewis-Cullinan accept periodic payments for the balance of the amount owed.

         On November 30, 2009, Ms. Lewis-Cullinan filed a complaint with the DLT in which she alleged that Genexion owed her $14, 637.89 in accrued vacation wages. On January 13, 2011, the DLT conducted a hearing on the matter. At the hearing, Genexion's principal, Yves Grumser, M.D., represented the corporation and also testified on its behalf. The only other witness to testify was Ms. Lewis-Cullinan.

         After considering the evidence and Ms. Lewis-Cullinan's request for attorney's fees, the DLT hearing officer issued a decision on February 23, 2011. In said decision, the hearing officer awarded $14, 637.89 to Ms. Lewis-Cullinan, ordered Genexion to pay a twenty-five percent penalty ($3659.47) to the DLT, and denied Ms. Lewis-Cullinan's request for attorney's fees on the grounds that he did not have authority to do so under the Wages Act.

         Genexion filed a timely appeal from the hearing officer's decision to this Court. As grounds for its appeal, Genexion alleged that the hearing officer erred by not expressly informing Dr. Grumser of his right to cross-examine Ms. Lewis-Cullinan and by refusing to consider arguments regarding Ms. Lewis-Cullinan's alleged misappropriation of corporate property. Genexion also argued that the decision was substantively deficient because the hearing officer's determinations were not supported by the competent evidence in the record. After carefully reviewing the record evidence and testimony, this Court issued a written decision affirming the decision of the hearing officer.

         Having prevailed against Genexion in its appeal, Ms. Lewis-Cullinan now contends that she is entitled to prejudgment interest pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 9-21-10. She also asks for attorney's fees and costs on a variety of statutory grounds: §§ 42-92-3; 9-1-45; or 28-14-19. In the alternative, Ms. Lewis-Cullinan requests the Court to award attorney's fees, costs, and interest under its inherent equitable powers. In support of her Motion, Ms. Lewis-Cullinan has submitted an affidavit from counsel and a sworn accounting report indicating that, in defending the appeal, she has incurred litigation expenses in the amount of $17, 647.20.

         Although Genexion initially objected to the Motion, it since has withdrawn its objection and, instead, has elected to defer to the Court's judgment on the matter. The DLT has objected to Ms. Lewis-Cullinan's request for attorney's fees, but has declined to take a position on the issue of interest.

         II

         Analysis

         A

         Prejudgment Interest

         Ms. Lewis-Cullinan contends that she is entitled to prejudgment interest pursuant to § 9-21-10, entitled "Interest in civil actions." According to Ms. Lewis-Cullinan's calculations, she is owed approximately $9138.86 in prejudgment interest on her award of $14, 637.89. However, before addressing the amount, if any, of prejudgment interest to which Ms. Lewis-Cullinan might be entitled, the Court must address whether she is entitled to prejudgment interest under § 9-21-10 in the first instance.

         It is well established that '"when the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, this Court must interpret the statute literally and must give the words of the statute their plain and ordinary meanings."' Shine v. Moreau, 119 A.3d 1, 9 (R.I. 2015) (quoting State v. Diamante, 83 A.3d 546, 548 (R.I. 2014)). It also is well established "that, 'because the right to receive interest on judgments was unknown at common law as it is a right created by statute, the court will strictly construe any statute that awards interest on judgments so as not to extend unduly the changes enacted by the legislature.'" Imperial Cas. & Indem. Co. v. Bellini, 947 A.2d 886, 894 (R.I. 2008) (quoting Clark-Fitzpatrick, Inc./Franki Found. Co. v. Gill, 652 A.2d 440, 451 (R.I. 1994)); see also Gott v. Norberg, 417 A.2d 1352, 1357 (R.I. 1980) ("We construe statutes that award interest on judgments strictly.").

         Section 9-21-10 provides in pertinent part:

"[i]n any civil action in which a verdict is rendered or a decision made for pecuniary damages, there shall be added by the clerk of the court to the amount of damages interest at the rate of twelve percent (12%) per annum thereon from the date the cause of action accrued, which shall be included in the judgment entered therein." Sec. 9-21-10 (emphasis added).

         Section 9-21-10 clearly and unambiguously states that prejudgment interest is available in civil actions. Sec. 9-21-10. Our Supreme Court has declared that "[t]he term civil action, as used in statutes, has been held to be a proceeding in a court of justice by one party against another for the enforcement or protection of a private right or the redress of a private wrong." Thrift v. Thrift, 30 R.I. 357, 75 A. 484, 487 (1910) (internal quotations omitted). As such, "the words 'civil action' in [§] 9-21-10 do not encompass appeals to the Superior Court from decisions of [an] administrator." Gott, 417 A.2d at 1357; see also id. at 1357 n.6 ("administrative appeals are not civil actions within the meaning of the Rules of Civil Procedure"); McAninch v. State of R.I. Dep't of Labor & Training, 64 A.3d 84, 86-90 (R.I. 2013) (recognizing that administrative appeals are appellate in nature and not civil actions, but applying Superior Court rules of time computation to administrative appeals because Super. R. Civ. P. 6(a) applies to computation of time for "any applicable statute"); Notre Dame Cemetery v. R.I. State Labor Relations Bd., 118 R.I. 336, 338, 373 A.2d 1194, 1196 (1977) (stating "[a] judicial review of the administrative action . . . is essentially an appellate proceeding and not a civil action"). See generally In re Estate of Cantore, 814 A.2d 331, 335 (R.I. 2003) (trial justice properly refused to award prejudgment interest under § 9-21-10 because an action in the Probate Court for an accounting "is an action for reimbursement, which is not the equivalent of a civil action for pecuniary damages"); Carbone v. Planning Bd. of Appeal of S. Kingstown, 702 A.2d 386, 388 (R.I. 1997) (declaring "[a]n appeal from a zoning board or other similar agency while not a civil action is a civil procedure as contemplated in Rule 1 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure ").

         At the time Ms. Lewis-Cullinan filed her complaint with DLT, she could have filed a civil action in this Court pursuant to then-existing § 28-14-18.1(a). See § 28-14-18.1(a) (repealed) ("A person who alleges a violation of this chapter may bring a civil action for appropriate injunctive relief or actual damages or both within one year after the occurrence of the alleged violation of this chapter.") (emphasis added).[2] However, Ms. Lewis-Cullinan chose not to file a civil action; instead, she filed a complaint with DLT which resulted in the instant administrative proceeding under § 28-14-19(a). See ยง 28-14-19(a) ("It shall be the duty of the director to insure ...


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