by Jared Odessky J.D.’20
I came to law school dedicated to pursuing a career in workers’ rights. As a 2L, I was lucky to find a welcome home in the Employment Law Clinic. My placement was at Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), which provides free civil legal assistance to low-income clients in the greater Boston area. GBLS is a unique setting for legal practice. Unlike many civil legal aid organizations, it does not accept federal Legal Services Corporation funding. LSC funding imposes significant barriers for legal aid organizations, barring them in many cases from representing undocumented workers, filing class actions, or lobbying. GBLS made the decision to relinquish funding in 1996, restraining its budget but freeing its attorneys to advocate broadly for working people.
In my work at GBLS, I saw the rewards of that difficult decision when I was able to assist with a precedent-setting class action case. In October 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts solicited amicus briefs on the question of “whether a plaintiff alleging a violation of the Wage Act and regulations promulgated thereunder may bring a class action without satisfying the requirements of Mass. R. Civ. P. 23, as amended, 471 Mass. 1491 (2015), where G. L. c. 151, § 20, and G. L. c. 149, § 150, expressly provide that an aggrieved employee may bring an action ‘on his own behalf, or for himself and for others similarly situated.’” In other words, the Court was to decide whether workers could file a class action challenging their employer’s wage-and-hour violations even if they did not meet the high bar for certification set by Rule 23. My assignment was to draft the section of GBLS’s brief arguing that the Wage Act established a separate and lower requirement.
The issue may seem picayune, but it had tremendous implications. For low-wage workers, class actions are often necessary to outweigh the monetary, information, and retaliation costs involved in filing a lawsuit. Since low-wage workers are also more likely to work in small and medium-sized workplaces or for larger employers who have subcontracted their work to small firms, Rule 23’s numerosity requirement significantly constrains the ability to file a class action. Absent a lower bar, many workers would be unable to vindicate their rights.
Researching and writing the brief was an incredible learning experience. For one, it served as an important reminder that the law’s procedural components are equally as critical to its operation as its substantive rights and protections. It was also useful training for how to write a cohesive and consistent legal work product in collaboration with others, since my portion would be part of a larger brief. While I also provided direct representation to clients during my placement at GBLS, the brief-writing experience showed me how time spent on other types of advocacy, such as amicus writing and policy work, could form part of a broader strategy to benefit our clients down the road.
Unfortunately, in April 2019, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled against our position, establishing that class action claims brought under the Wage Act are subject to the Rule 23 standard. But there was still reason to celebrate. The Court also reversed the trial court’s order denying class certification in the case, reviving the class action despite our inability to win a lower standard. I was proud to play a small part in fighting for workers to win their hard-earned pay and am grateful to the Employment Law Clinic for such an enriching experience.