Usually, in FLSA cases, no emotional damages are allowable in retaliation cases. Perhaps that inviolate principle is now changing. In an important case, the Fifth Circuit has recently held that “an employee may recover for emotional injury resulting from retaliation” under the Fair Labor Standards Act in Pineda, et al. v. JTCH Apartments LLC.
The FLSA prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for complaining about not being paid correctly or for commencing a lawsuit or an administrative proceeding. The anti-retaliation damages clause states that “[a]ny employer who violates the provisions … shall be liable for such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purpose of” the anti-retaliation section. In Pineda, the issue was whether this language allowed a plaintiff to recover emotional harm damages in FLSA retaliation cases as well as the lost wages.
The plaintiff was a maintenance worker who was given an apartment to live in, at a discounted rent, as part of his compensation. He sued for alleged unpaid overtime; then, three days after the Company was served with the Complaint, the employer told Pineda (and his wife) to vacate their apartment for nonpayment of rent, where the unpaid rent equaled the discount that the Company had given to Mr. Pineda. The employee then added a FLSA retaliation Count and at trial requested a jury instruction on emotional distress damages for the retaliation claim, which was denied. The employee won his wage case (and attorney fees) and then he appealed the lower court’s refusal to instruct the jury on emotional distress damages to the Fifth Circuit.
The Fifth Circuit found the language of the FLSA damages provision for retaliation claims to be “expansive” and should “be read to include the compensation for emotional distress that is typically available for intentional torts like retaliatory discharge.” The Fifth Circuit cited precedent from other Circuits that have approved such awards. The Fifth Circuit also noted that intentional retaliation cases were more detrimental than ordinary wage violations. In this case, the Court noted that the plaintiff’s testimony on the nature and level of emotional harm was “sufficient to enable a jury to find that the plaintiff experienced compensable emotional distress damages.” Now, he has to prove such harm.
Employers must be careful when they want to discipline or fire an employee who filed a wage claim or complained about his compensation. It seems that a disturbing trend is forming, with more and more courts ready to award emotional distress damages in FLSA retaliation cases. Thus, even a simple wage violation, even if an accident, may expose the employer to damages for pain and suffering. The action(s) cannot be, or be perceived to be, retaliatory.