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. 

Stressed businessman in the office
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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.

The Takeaway

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.

Although Andrew Puzder, the fast food executive who has been named as the nominee for Secretary of Labor, has indicated that he is “looking forward” to his confirmation hearing, there are also indications that he may withdraw his name from consideration for this post.  There are unnamed sources that assert that he was having second thoughts about the job and could be “bailing” due in part to the intense criticism that has come at him from many sides, e.g. labor unions.

Andrew Puzder
By U.S. Senate [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mr. Puzder opposes increasing the minimum wage and an expansion for overtime pay and has hard line positions on immigration.  In this vein, the AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. have requested that Puzder release documents prior to the confirmation hearing, showing the manner in which his company has treated its employees, such as contracts with CKE franchisees, employee pay and benefit data and employee handbooks.  Indeed, Senator Murray called Puzder “a uniquely unqualified choice.” Mr. Trumka stated that Puzder has “used his position and authority to enrich himself at the expense of workers by violating labor laws.”

A group that supports restaurant industry workers issued an unscientific report that concluded that workers were subjected to significant wage theft while Puzder was in charge and also that many female employees were victims of sexual harassment in numbers that far exceeded the national average in this industry.  The report was mentioned during the hearings held last week led by Senator Murray and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, when they heard testimony from workers relating to their experiences with many allegedly restrictive employment practices.

Puzder has also been criticized for his views on immigration.  He has called the current system “unfair and unworkable.”  He has stated that any such reform should include a guest worker program, as well as some channel or mechanism to “adjust status” for people in this country without authorization and “special relief” for the children of unauthorized immigrants.  Interestingly, the news site Breitbart (which has been linked to white nationalists, i.e. the “alt-right”) also attacked the nominee, claiming that he “stands diametrically opposed to Trump’s signature issues on trade and immigration.”

The Takeaway

We will see (yet again).  Seems like there is an active groundswell of opposition that is shaping up that may doom this nominee.

There have been a number of cases in which the FLSA employee status of exotic dancers has been litigated.  Well, in a very recent one, the plaintiffs’ counsel is strongly attacking the Company’s early summary judgment motion.  The dancers argued they were employees, not independent contractors; the Court has now granted conditional certification to the class.  The case is entitled Shaw et al. v. The Set Enterprises Inc. et al., and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of Florida.

Former dancers Sarah Shaw, Rebecca Wiles and Ashley Howell argued that the amount of control exerted over them by the club owners was the key in deciding what their status should be.  The plaintiffs reeled off many cases in which just such findings were made.  Their papers noted that their “position is not novel; the vast majority of courts to have considered this issue have found exotic dancer/entertainers to be employees as a matter of law.”

Their theory was a willful misclassification had occurred and they were paid only through tips from the customers.  The class was granted conditional certification in December 2016, as the Court found that a sufficient evidentiary showing was made indicating 300 entertainers worked at the two clubs during the three years leading up to the lawsuit and all were similarly situated.

The owners asserted they were independent contractors who just paid a “modest fee” to the club as a licensee, in exchange for being allowed to perform, use the facilities and collect tips and fees from the clientele. They also asserted they exercised no control while they were dancing and performing.

An attorney for the plaintiffs said that notice was being sent to 4,500 prospective class members.  He opined that, in the end, these people would be considered employees under the law, as they have in many other cases.  He said that “there’s been very strong precedent over the last ten years or so, consistently, in nearly all courts, that has found entertainment dancers do qualify as employees. We believe the same will be found under the facts of this case.”

The Takeaway

These cases are very fact-sensitive, but I agree that the majority of them rule that these folks are employees.  This case is interesting in the sense that an ultimate decision on the merits has not been made, but the opt-in notices are being sent to prospective claimants.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., took testimony from workers at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. These are the businesses that are operated by Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder. The employees spoke of wage theft and other allegedly improper employment practices.

The Senators organized the forum after Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. (the Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee) denied a request by several Democratic senators to allow the workers to testify at Puzder’s forthcoming confirmation hearing.  Senator Warren utilized the event to attack a number of policy positions that the nominee has taken, such as his opposition to an increase in the federal minimum wage and his opposition to the USDOL’s initiative to increase the numbers of workers eligible for overtime.

One of the workers testified that restrictive labor budgets set down for the individual restaurants compelled managers to have employees work off-the-clock without pay to make sure that all of the work was done.  She also asserted that the Company placed restrictions on the number of full-time workers so that health care benefits need not be provided.

Senator Warren observed that “if you work for a living, this man is important to you.” She noted that the Secretary will be responsible for enforcing wage and hour laws and establishing workplace safety standards and then added that “unfortunately, Mr. Puzder is not the kind of person that workers can trust will stand up for them.”

Senator Murray observed that “I can’t help but think about President-elect Trump throughout the campaign telling rally after rally that he was on the side of workers.  I met with the secretary of labor nominee, Mr. Puzder, and it’s such a contrast to what I heard President-elect Trump say. … I’m increasingly concerned that this is a very broken promise from the president-elect.”

The Takeaway

It is difficult to envision how this Secretary will be a pro-employee advocate. His views have been well-publicized and they will be/are in line with the very much pro-business (i.e. anti-worker) views of the new President.

Assuming the nominee is confirmed, we will soon see where this goes…

I love this one.  For the title of the worker classification involved.  It appears that a class of drilling fluid specialists, commonly referred to as “mud men,” has reached a $7 million settlement in its wage and hour suit against M-I LLC.  The case is entitled Syed et al. v. M-I LLC and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of California.

The employees worked in drilling operations in Bakersfield, Calif.  They claimed they were compelled to work either twelve (12) hour shifts daily for two weeks before leaving their work sites, or work full-days (i.e. 24 hours) in which they were always on-call.  They claimed that they were not paid overtime when they worked more than forty hours per week.  (They also claimed no overtime pay when their work days exceeded eight hours, which is California law).

The settlement monies will be paid to 115 members of the national FLSA class as well as 353 members of the California class; the $7 million settlement includes up to $2.37 million in attorneys’ fees and costs, service awards of $15,000 to plaintiff Balfour and $20,000 to named plaintiff Syed, $11,500 in claims administration expenses and a $75,000 Private Attorneys General Act payment.

That leaves more than four million dollars to be paid out to class members, based on the number of weeks worked during the class period. Some class members will receive $55 for every week, while the California class members will receive $165 for each week worked.  The proposed settlement document stated that “for purposes of this proposed settlement, at a mediation … the parties operated under the premise that Rule 23 proposed class members were in a better position under California law for claims than FLSA collective action members, where in some individual cases, the covered positions have generally been deemed ‘exempt’ under federal law.  This is crucial to understand in order to realize the structure of the proposed settlement.”

The Takeaway

The plaintiffs’ attorney posited that “there are many of these types of cases pending against many major players in the industry.”  If this is an industry wide pattern and practice, that would be a problem.  The only thing to do in that instance is get into compliance and hope no one sues for two years…

granite slabs
Copyright: severija / 123RF Stock Photo

Usually, it is the USDOL that is seeking sanctions against an employer who has, in wholesale fashion, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Well, for once that wheel has turned the other way. A federal judge has just sanctioned Labor Secretary Tom Perez for discovery failures and the Court prevented the government from calling witnesses at trial. Further, the lawyer representing the agency has sought permission to withdraw from the case. The case is entitled Perez et al v. Virginia Marble and Granite Inc. et al, and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia.

The Judge granted three motions for sanctions filed by the Company, “for reasons stated from the bench” in an Order filed a few days ago. The Judge also barred the Secretary from discussing a damages calculation at trial and denied the agency’s motion to extend the discovery deadline; that motion was filed five days after discovery closed. The agency admitted that several unexpected medical emergencies involving the agency attorney’s son delayed its discovery responses.

The agency had sued the Company, alleging overtime violations involving forty-six employees. The Complaint alleged that the Company paid some workers a flat rate for each day of work, but not the required time-and-a-half when they did overtime work. The agency also charged that the Company was altering their records to make it appear that the employees were paid proper overtime.

The Company, for its part, filed three sanctions motions, alleging discovery derelictions and deficiencies; the Company requested that the Court bar testimony regarding the agency’s damages calculation or, even better, dismiss the case completely. The Company contended that the Secretary failed to himself appear or make an investigator available for a deposition, failed to disclose the agency’s damages calculation and witness lists under Rule 26(a) and failed to respond to written discovery requests. The Company sought to accommodate scheduling issues and many times had asked for the damages calculation and witness list.

The Takeaway

This makes me feel good—even the Secretary of Labor can be sanctioned for failure to comply with discovery deadlines and protocols in federal court. I have found state courts much more lenient on discovery issues and failure to meet deadlines.

Good way to start the holidays!

Employers may make deductions for uniforms under the Fair Labor Standards Act but such deductions cannot take their wage rates under the minimum. Life Time Fitness just learned this truism. The gym chain has agreed to pay in excess of $976,000 in back wages and damages to almost 16,000 employees whose wages fell below the minimum after these deductions were made.

Gym Treadmills
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The Wage Hour Administrator stated that “the U.S. Department of Labor takes its responsibility to ensure workers receive the wages they have earned very seriously. This agreement will put thousands of dollars where they belong — in the pockets of hardworking people and their families.”

The agreement applies to workers at locations in 26 states. The Company will pay back $11,899 to 363 workers across three locations in Minnesota and $476,329 to 15,546 employees at locations in 26 states for a total of $488,228 in back wages. The Company will also pay a sum equal to the wages in liquidated damages and was also assessed Civil Money Penalties of almost $100,000 for these FLSA violations.

The Company has self-corrected. More than a year ago, the Company voluntarily ceased compelling employees buy their own uniforms. A Company spokesperson stated that “we are pleased to have since reached a resolution with the Department of Labor that was acceptable to all parties.”

The Takeaway

The minimum wage is inviolate. Deductions can never reduce an employee’s wage rate below that basement level. Moreover, each State has their own rules, often times stricter than the FLSA, concerning “illegal” deductions. Thus, the takeaway here is to learn the wage payment laws of each State where business is conducted and to “honor” the sacredness of the minimum wage.

I blogged about this the other day.  Well, the Fifth Circuit has acted with alacrity and has stated that it will hear the USDOL appeal of the lower court injunction blocking the new overtime regulations on an accelerated, expedited basis.  Indeed, the Court has ordered that briefs be submitted by the end of January, which, for legal proceedings, is very quick.  The case is entitled Nevada et al. v. U.S. Department of Labor et al., in the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Courthouse pillars
Copyright: bbourdages / 123RF Stock Photo

The appellate Court has advised that it will schedule oral argument as soon as possible after briefs are submitted.

The successful (for the moment) plaintiffs are not at all cowed by this development.  The Nevada Solicitor has stated that “the Fifth Circuit’s willingness to expedite oral argument shows that it recognizes the national importance of this issue.   As we did in the district court, the states look forward to presenting how this new overtime rule is unlawful and presents a sweeping departure from over 75 years of past practice.”

The twenty-one States that had brought the suit opposed the fast-tracking of the appeal.  They asserted that such an expedited proceeding could conflict with the lower court’s ruling on their motion arguing for final judgment invalidating the DOL rule.  These plaintiffs also argued that if the lower court issued a new decision, that action would then moot the preliminary injunction and the Fifth Circuit would not have needed to rearrange its calendar and oral argument schedule.

The DOL countered by asserting that even if court below issued a final order, the Fifth Circuit would then consolidate the preliminary injunction appeal with the agency’s appeal from final judgment.  The DOL argued that this approach would be very efficient because the legal basis for the grant of a preliminary injunction would be the legal foundation for the summary judgment proceeding and Order.

The Takeaway

As they say, now the fun begins.

Anyone who tells you they know how this will turn out does not, really know at all.

The DOL filed an appeal of the lower court’s granting an injunction staying the implementation of the new overtime regulations.  Now, as expected, frankly, the agency has requested that the Fifth Circuit expedite these proceedings.  The agency claims that the delay has denied giving additional pay (i.e. overtime) to millions of workers.

Dollar signs
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The Department of Labor observed that the States themselves asked for an expedited argument and decision.  The agency’s theory is that the lower court decision should be reversed because the Judge incorrectly ruled that the FLSA did not provide the agency with the authority to use “a salary-level test” to gauge which workers would be exempt from overtime.

The DOL motion stated that “this court, however, reached the opposite conclusion in Wirtz v. Mississippi Publishers Corp. There, this court emphasized that ‘[t]he statute gives the secretary broad latitude to ‘define and delimit’ the meaning of the term ‘bona fide executive … capacity’,” and rejected the argument “that the minimum salary requirement is arbitrary or capricious.”

The DOL has also contended that the newly revised salary threshold is consistent with the salary levels established over the last seven decades.  It notes that the proposed minimum salary level for exempt employees is roughly three times the minimum wage for a 40-hour work week, which is equivalent to the multiplier utilized at the law’s inception, in 1938.

The Takeaway

I assumed this request would be made.  I also believe the request will be granted as this is an issue of national importance.

That does not mean the lower court decision will be overturned or that the new Administration will not roll back (in some part) the proposed salary level.

We will see…

On November 22, 2016, Judge Mazzant of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas issued a nationwide injunction against the Department of Labor (DOL) blocking its Final Overtime Rule, which was set to go into effect on December 1, 2016.

The injunction “preserves the status quo while the Court determines the Department [of Labor]’s authority to make the Final Rule as well as the Final Rule’s validity.” Moving forward, the Final Rule may face an uphill battle as the Court found the states challenging the Final Rule showed a “substantial likelihood of success on the merits.”

Dollar signs
Copyright: sergo / 123RF Stock Photo

This leaves many employers in a quandary.  Employers who had plans to implement those changes must decide whether to postpone, temporarily or otherwise, those initiatives, proceed with the changes or see what develops down the line.

I believe the following guidelines provide some reasoned basis for dealing with this injunction and the uncertainty that it brings with it:

  • Employers that have already implemented changes in anticipation of the new rules taking effect need to consider from a human resources standpoint the impact of reversing those actions. Taking away promised salary increases will inevitably lead to dissatisfied employees and employee relations problems. Employers need to weigh the “human” costs of that unhappiness against the cost of the salary increases.
  • Employers that have not implemented changes are better able to take a wait-and-see approach. The injunction could well be modified or even lifted.  If that happens, there is no way to know how long employers will have to comply with any revised standards.
  • Employers must still be mindful of the duties test of the “white-collar exemption,” which has not been altered. If employees are non-exempt, today, from a duties perspective, they will be non-exempt in the future, whatever the salary levels are raised or (or not raised to).
  • As always, employers must comply with state-specific requirements for overtime exemptions, which may well include salary thresholds more than $455 per week, e.g. California, New York.
  • Keep employees informed, whatever you do!

The Takeaway

In my humble opinion, I do not believe these new changes will be implemented, or, if they are, they might/will be diluted under the pro-business Administration that will be taking over in seven weeks.

To be continued…