Ignoring any legal papers that land on the receptionist’s desk may spell big trouble. If you don’t answer a lawsuit in time, whoever filed the lawsuit gets an automatic win.
As the following case shows, if the claim is for unpaid overtime wages or an oral employment contract claim, the employee collects everything allegedly owed under the contract—plus double the overtime he claims he was due and attorneys’ fees. What’s worse, your organization never gets a chance to dispute the allegations.
Recent case: Jose Mata claims he had an oral employment agreement with Flood Doctor, a Florida company. Mata claimed the company agreed to pay him $12.50 per hour, plus a 5% commission and mileage. When he wasn’t paid for overtime hours, he hired an attorney.
The attorney filed a Fair Labor Standards Act () and breach of contract lawsuit. The employer ignored the complaint, and Mata got a default judgment. Then the court simply accepted everything Mata claimed—including the oral contract terms and his estimate for how many hours he worked. The court then doubled the award because the FLSA says employers that willfully ignore the law must pay double what they owe in unpaid wages. Mata’s attorneys will also have their fees paid by the company—all because it ignored a legal summons. (Mata v. Flood Doctor, No. 6:07-CV-449, MD FL, 2007)
Final note: Do you have a process for handling legal papers? Train receptionists and the mailroom to immediately forward any legal-looking documents to the HR office. Log receipt of it and call the company attorney right away.