Pursuant to New York State Department of Labor guidance and New York case law, incentive compensation is not considered “wages” unless it is “earned.” See generally Truelove v. Northeast Capital & Advisory, Inc., 95 N.Y.2d 220, 225 (2000). Accordingly, disputes over an employee’s entitlement to incentive compensation in New York often turn on whether a particular bonus, or other type of incentive payment has been earned, and thus become “wages” which may not be subject to subsequent forfeiture or nonpayment. Recently, the Appellate Division’s First Department, which sits in review of the trial courts in Manhattan, rejected an executive’s claim under Article 6 of the New York Labor Law for such a payment. Cuervo v Opera Solutions LLC, 2011 NY Slip Op 6197 (1st Dep’t Aug. 11, 2011).

In Cuervo, a majority of the appellate panel ruled that because the executive level employee’s offer letter had reserved to the employer the right to modify the commission schedule, the plaintiff had no claim to further commission payments based on the employer’s unilateral modification (provided, of course, that minimum wage and overtime requirements were met). The dissent focused on whether the plaintiff was an executive or administrative employee who would be categorically exempt from the payment-of-wages protections of Article 6 of the Labor Law (and whose entitlement to any further compensation would thus be limited to his remedies under contract law).

As litigation over incentive payments continues to expand, to ensure compliance with the law and avoid costly disputes over incentive compensation. all employers should regularly review their incentive compensation programs and agreements to ensure they clearly state when any such potential incentive compensation is ”earned.”