Possible Wage Overpayment--Five Years Ago
March 23, 2014 5:58 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend received a lawyergram stating that a former employer overpaid her nearly five years ago, and is just now asking for the money back. She believes she was never paid for that period, and obviously doesn't want to give them money to which they are not entitled. Details below.

So, just over five years ago, at the end of the fall semester, my girlfriend left a doctoral program at a university in New York. She was being paid a stipend as a graduate student, which terminated when she left the university. A couple of weeks ago, she received a letter from a law firm, claiming that the university had paid her from January through March of 2009. They've given her thirty days to respond to their letter.

She had been paid her stipend by direct deposit, but she no longer has the account that went into, so tracking down the statements is a difficult prospect. She does have her tax return from 2009, and there's no W-2 from the university.

The first, obvious question is, what is the statute of limitations to recover overpaid wages in New York? Secondly, should she be asking the lawyers for documentation to support their claim? The amount in question is $2500.
posted by SobaFett to Work & Money (13 answers total)
Best answer: Yes, she should ask for documentation that she was paid. They should be able to tell her when the deposits were maid, how much they were for, and why she was paid. If there's no W-2, that seems fishy.

I work in HR at a university, and I can't believe how many people will call me and say they haven't been paid, when their pay is direct deposited and they just didn't bother to check their account. Not saying that your girlfriend is one of these people, just that the university almost certainly has these records.
posted by donajo at 6:11 PM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: She should absolutely ask for documentation. The university has an elaborate financial system which should clearly document what was happening on their end, which will probably help you in contacting the bank.

More, if she has any friendly contacts left in her old department (a secretary, for instance) she could easily call up and see if someone could look into their records of what was going on.

I'm actually very familiar with graduate student payment issues (and I think it's trashy of the university to come after you so late for a comparatively small amount, TBH - I have certainly been part of an "OMG we overpaid you when we should have stopped" situation, but it happened within months and we were hugely apologetic although we did have to ask for the money back. To me, it's on the university - if a university screws up by not terminating your appointment, they should be apologizing to you. If your girlfriend really was overpaid, that's because a faculty member, secretary, program staffer, accountant or HR person did not do the paperwork they should have done.

In the past, I know our university has been cool with reasonable payment plans.
posted by Frowner at 6:13 PM on March 23, 2014

This may be of interest, discussing possible limitations on the rights of a NY employer to recover overpaid wages.
posted by uncaken at 6:17 PM on March 23, 2014

Yes, I would ask for the records. It could clear this up very quickly, or it could indicate if there is no case to be had. However, I would be surprised if the university would go forward with a claim like this without something to back it up.

One thing to consider is that as student of the university, your girlfriend can call on her own to the accounting office and ask if there is a W2 that exists from her time at the university. This might allow you to either confirm the basis of their claim or settle your mind the other way as you wait for them to send you whatever you request. It would also allow you to engage in a fully informed conversation on your end. "I contacted the university, and there doesn't seem to be a W2 that exists for this time period for me. What is it that you have?"

Or something like that.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:18 PM on March 23, 2014

Just as a note about whether the lack of W-2 means anything: I'm a grad student getting paid a stipend from my university and I don't get a W-2 in semesters where I'm not TAing.
posted by ootandaboot at 7:28 PM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Just as a note about whether the lack of W-2 means anything: I'm a grad student getting paid a stipend from my university and I don't get a W-2 in semesters where I'm not TAing.

AFAIK, this would only be legal if the stipend were being classified as scholarship/grant money (and would be listed on the 1098T instead, and also would not be something the university could call take-backsies on.)

In addition to pay/deposit stubs, she should ask for a hiring/job appointment record (if those are administered separately.) I know that at my institution, these are usually issued at the beginning of each semester assuming that people will be there for the duration of the semester, and then amended later to account for the (pretty common) case of graduating students who defend and leave to shiny new jobs midway through the semester. It's possible that this is a case of someone with more enthusiasm than diligence looking at an old copy of her appointment form and not seeing the updated information.
posted by kagredon at 7:57 PM on March 23, 2014

Regardless of whether the account is closed, the bank will have records of the account from that time period. She should get them ASAP.
posted by megatherium at 7:59 PM on March 23, 2014

(Also, on reread: is this lawyergram actually coming from the university or from an outside firm that claims to be representing the university, because if it's the latter, that sounds sketch as hell and I'd want direct documentation that this was actually an action taken by the university and not a weird scam.)
posted by kagredon at 8:00 PM on March 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

What happens if she doesn't cough up the money? I would be pretty pissed off if a forner employer decided to shake me down for two and a half grand that they claimed to have paid me five years ago, especially if the mistake was on their end and I'd been acting in good faith.

I would feel no moral obligation to return the money; why is it my problem if their payroll is so screwed up and incompetent that they not only overpaid me by $2.5k but also were only figuring it out five years after the fact? Absent any legal or financial consequences for not paying up, I would probably just ignore this shakedown and let them eat the loss for their own screw-up.
posted by Scientist at 8:39 PM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Scientist: because they have a legal right to the money & a court judgement against an individual will show up on their credit record in the future. Simple as that really.
posted by pharm at 1:37 AM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

So one time a similar thing happened to me. Many years after leaving a job, I got a collection notice for overpaid wages. This was I think maybe 5 years after the fact. I demanded the collection company send me (1) proof I was paid for that period, and (2) proof that was not employed at that time (told them to get a copy of my resignation letter). The collection company could produce nothing and so fucked off.

And then, like 3 years after the collection attempt, I discovered that they really had overpaid me, and that the unclaimed paychecks had been sent to the State of California as unclaimed property. The "extra" paychecks had been addressed to my work address (i.e. the place I had quit), not my home address where I had been receiving the checks until then.

I have no idea how they managed to screw that up, but I felt zero guilt for claiming the money and keeping it. Screw them for sending me to collections over their own mistake.

So what I'm saying is, please check your state's Unclaimed Property department or equivalent. You might have some free money waiting.
posted by ryanrs at 5:50 AM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a slightly different situation, but a woman with my same name and middle initial taught (or something) at a school I had taught at in an earlier semester. They paid me her first two paychecks. I hadn't noticed, which isn't a good sign, but that's another story.

I don't have any problem with the idea that I had to reimburse the school for that, but they noticed within 30 days (probably my doppel ganger noticed she hadn't been paid) so it wasn't like I had absorbed the money and moved on.

Still, the school was really absurd about the whole thing. They *emailed* me demanding that I reimburse them RIGHT THIS SECOND IMMEDIATELY NOW!!! and get some form notarized in triplicate. I wrote back saying that I would wasn't going to pay them back until I got my bank statement and could confirm that they'd paid me.

After they cashed my reimbursement check, they hounded me for the form. They actually told me they were going to take me to court if I didn't sign it. They didn't actually want it notarized in triplicate, but they did want me to sign and return it. I finally said "look: this is where I work. You are welcome to send a messenger with a form for me to sign. You are welcome to send me the form and a stamped, self-addressed envelope. But I have no plans to print this form, sign it, scan it, and send it back to you. That is a pain in my ass and I'm not the one who screwed up. You are more then welcome to sue me for a signature on a form saying that I'm going to pay you back money that you already have. I'll bring the cleared check to court with me. I'm not trying to be difficult but I have work to do that doesn't involve finding a scanner or a fax machine for you."

I tell this story only because it was my experience that university bureaucrats have totally unreasonable expectations about who should fix their problems.

As others have said, you should look into the statute of limitations and insist that they provide clear documentation of both the fact that they paid you and the fact that you were not entitled to be paid.
posted by amandabee at 7:51 AM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Definitely check that this is not a scam, first.

And second, definitely require that they provide documented proof.

When I was a grad student at Berkeley, I lived in married student housing. A few years later, I got a demand from a collections agency that I pay rent for that period, and I wrote back and asked for proof that my rent hadn't been paid. They mailed me a screen shot from the university's computer showing that each month was paid, along with another demand letter. I wrote back, pointed out that their "proof" that I had not paid showed that I had paid. I never heard from them again and it never appeared on my credit report.

This may all just go away very quickly.
posted by Capri at 12:49 PM on March 24, 2014

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