Mathis v. St. Helens Auto Center, Inc.Annotate this Case
The issue this case presented for the Oregon Supreme Court's review centered on whether ORS 652.200(2) and ORCP 54 E(3) could be construed in a way that “will give effect” to both, in the words of the Oregon Legislature’s longstanding requirement for construing statutes. Plaintiff was employed by defendant for several years. Defendant terminated plaintiff’s employment, and, several months later, plaintiff filed the underlying action alleging defendant failed to pay wages that were due at termination. The case was assigned to mandatory court-annexed arbitration, and defendant made an offer of judgment under ORCP 54 E, which plaintiff rejected. The arbitrator ultimately found that defendant had failed to timely pay some of the wages that plaintiff claimed and that the failure was willful, entitling plaintiff to a statutory penalty. In addition, the arbitrator awarded plaintiff an attorney fee under ORS 652.200(2) and costs, but he applied ORCP 54 E(3) to limit those awards to fees and costs that plaintiff had incurred before defendant’s offer of judgment, because that offer of judgment exceeded the amount that plaintiff had ultimately recovered on his claims. Plaintiff filed exceptions to the arbitrator’s application of ORCP 54 E(3) to limit the award of fees and costs, but the award was affirmed by operation of law when the court failed to enter a decision within 20 days. In a divided en banc opinion, the Court of Appeals held that ORCP 54 E(3) could be applied to wage claims without negating the effect of ORS 652.200(2) and thus, both could be given effect. The Supreme Court concurred with the appellate dissent, finding that and need to limit the attorney fees of an employee who unreasonably rejects a good faith offer or tender could be addressed on a case-by-case basis under ORS 20.075(2), but the “reasonable” attorney fee required by ORS 652.200(2) could not be categorically limited through ORCP 54 E(3). Judgment was reversed and the matter returned to the circuit court for further proceedings.