A recent case involving an employee and his spouse, who were evicted following claims of FLSA violations, demonstrates some of the limitations imposed on claims for violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The particular legal issues in the case of Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, LLC deal with retaliation of a non-employee and the availability of emotional distress damages.
The FLSA retaliation claims in Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, LLC
Pineda was an employee of an apartment complex, where he and his wife also lived. Pineda performed maintenance work at the property and received reduced rent as part of his compensation. However, after Pineda filed a lawsuit against his employer/landlord for unpaid overtime, pursuant to the FLSA, he and his wife were evicted, allegedly for nonpayment of rent. Specifically, the overdue rent that was claimed by the employer was the amount of the rent reductions the employee received over the term of his employment. After Pineda and his wife vacated the apartment, their lawsuit was amended to include retaliation claims.
Jury award in favor of Pineda
At trial, the district court dismissed the spouse’s claims for retaliation because she was not an actual employee of the apartment complex. The trial court also refused to allow the jury to consider whether the employee was entitled to emotional distress damages. The jury returned a verdict that included Pineda’s unpaid overtime, compensation for the retaliatory eviction, liquidated damages and attorney’s fees.
The decision of the appellate court
Pineda appealed his case for two reasons: the dismissal of his spouse’s retaliation claim and the denial of emotional distress damages. These were issues of first impression for the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit recently held that a plaintiff-employee in an FLSA retaliation claim can recover damages for emotional distress but that the statute does not provide a retaliation cause of action for a nonemployee spouse.
Emotional distress damages
The Court first addressed whether the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision provides for emotional distress damages. As the Court recognized, Congress created an FLSA retaliation cause of action to allow employees to recover wages, liquidated damages and “such legal and equitable relief as may be appropriate.” It is this broad language that provides relief for retaliation plaintiffs including emotional distress damages. The Court explained that, since retaliation claims are always the result of intentional conduct, damages for emotional distress are recoverable to a prevailing plaintiff in an FLSA retaliation claim.
Nonemployee claims under the FLSA
On the other hand, the appeal regarding the retaliation claim brought by Pineda’s spouse was not successful. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the nonemployee spouse’s claim. The court held that nonemployees do not have “standing” or the ability to bring an FLSA retaliation claim. This reasoning is based entirely on the statutory language which actually creates the cause of action. The language states that it is unlawful to “discharge or . . . discriminate against any employee . . . .”
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady Michel & King, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.