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An employee, but not his spouse, can recover damages for emotional distress stemming from an employer's retaliatory eviction of both after the employee filed a complaint under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), according to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Santiago Pineda performed maintenance work in and around an apartment complex owned by his employer. Pineda and his spouse, Maria Pena, lived in an apartment in the same complex that was rented under Pena's name. As part of the compensation for Pineda's work, Pena received a discounted rental rate on the apartment.
Pineda filed a lawsuit in district court alleging that his employer did not pay him overtime in compliance with the FLSA. Three days after service of Pineda's lawsuit, Pineda and Pena received a notice to vacate their apartment for nonpayment of rent. The amount Pineda's employer demanded equaled the rent reductions that Pena had received over the period of Pineda's employment. Pineda and Pena vacated the apartment in response to the employer's demand. Pena then joined Pineda's lawsuit, which was amended to add retaliation claims (from both Pineda and Pena) based on the demand for back rent.
At trial, the jury found for Pineda on his claims for unpaid overtime and retaliation, and he was awarded modest damages (totaling $6,628.50). Pineda's counsel was also awarded $76,732.88 in attorney fees. Pena's claims were dismissed by the district court.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Calculating Overtime Pay in the United States]
Pineda and Pena appealed, both arguing that the district court should have instructed the jury on damages for emotional harm. In addition, Pena argued that her claim for damages should not have been dismissed because she was in "the zone of interests protected by the FLSA retaliation provision."
The 5th Circuit found that Pineda's claim for emotional harm should have been submitted to the jury because the FLSA includes broad language that should be interpreted to include the same damages that are typically available in similar tort actions like retaliatory discharge.
However, the 5th Circuit upheld the dismissal of Pena's retaliation claim, finding that the plain language of the FLSA only extends retaliation protections to an employee and not to an employee's spouse.
Pineda v. JTCH Apts., L.L.C., 5th Cir., No.: 15-10932 (Dec. 19, 2016).
Professional Pointer: Taking adverse action against an individual who files a minimum-wage or overtime complaint can lead to an additional claim for retaliation. If the retaliation claim includes a claim for emotional distress due to the employer's retaliatory action, it could substantially increase the employer's potential financial exposure. In addition, attorney fee awards in FLSA cases sometimes significantly exceed a plaintiff's actual damages.
John T. Ellis is an attorney with Ufberg & Associates LLP, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Scranton, Pa.
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