Tuesday, February 27, 2007

S.C. Supreme Court holds that inmates in work programs may not bring Wage Payment Act Claims

In Williams v. SCDOC, a class action was commenced on behalf of inmates in custody of the South Carolina Department of Corrections. The inmates participated in a prison industry program operated pursuant to DOC's contract with respondent Williams Technologies, Inc. (WTI). The Inmates sued WTA and the SCDOIC arguing that claim they were underpaid for their labor and thus entitled to lost wages under the South Carolina Payment of Wages Act. The trial court dismissed the inmates suit and the state Supreme Court affirmed.

The Court held that the inmates could not maintain an action against WTI under the Payment of Wages Act since WTI is not the entity responsible for paying their wages. The contract between the SCDOC and WTI provided that WTI would pay DOC a flat rate of $4.00 per hour per inmate and that DOC was responsible to pay inmate workers and handle payroll deductions.

In dissent, Justice Pleicones forcefully argued that to hold that the payment of wages is exclusively within the control of the DOC ignores the language of S.C. Code Ann. 24-3-40, which provides that "the employer of a prisoner authorized to work … in a prison industry program … shall pay the prisoner's wages directly to the Department of Corrections" and then requires the DOC to distribute those wages to inmates on behalf of the employer. Thus, the ultimate responsibility for paying wages falls on the prison industry sponsor, while the DOC merely acts as a conduit for payment to the inmates. Hence, Pleicones would have allowed the suit to proceed forward.

My take on this is that Justice Pleicones is right on the law. However, knowing prisoners, once they learned of this new "right to sue," our courts would be inundated with Wage Payment Act Claims and thus the majority does not want to give them a tool with which to abuse the system.

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