Did You Know That You Can Recover for Emotional Distress Damages in FLSA Retaliation Claims?

By | July 8, 2017

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes minimum wage and overtime protections for many workers in America.  Workers who lack work authorization are entitled to minimum wages and overtime pay for hours worked under the FLSA to the same extent as other workers.

The FLSA also prohibits retaliation against any person who has filed a complaint with the Department of Labor or an employer (orally or in writing) or cooperated in an FLSA investigation. It is unlawful for an employer to terminate or in any other manner discriminate against workers in retaliation for asserting minimum wage or overtime claims (which can include pay issues such as deductions or tips) or cooperating with an FLSA investigation. These protections apply regardless of immigration status. For example, it would be unlawful for an employer to report an undocumented worker to immigration authorities in retaliation for filing a wage claim.

If you bring a FLSA retaliation claim in Texas, you may be entitled to the following recovery:

  • Reinstatement;
  • Grant of promotion that may have been denied;
  • Lost wages and liquidated damages equal to the lost wages;
  • Front pay;
  • Compensatory damages; and
  • Reasonable attorney’s fees.

Some remedies for retaliation violations may be limited for workers without work authorization.

Recently, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employee may now recover for emotional distress damages in a retaliation claim asserted under the FLSA. At the same time, the Fifth Circuit held that only an employee can assert an FLSA retaliation claim. Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, L.L.C.

In that case, Santiago Pineda worked as a maintenance man for an apartment complex owned by JTCH Apartments, LLC (JTCH). Pineda and his wife, Maria Pena, lived at the apartment complex where he worked, and as part of his compensation, JTCH discounted the rent.

Pineda, who had been paid as an independent contractor, sued JTCH and its owner under the FLSA seeking unpaid overtime. Three days after JTCH received the summons, Pineda and his wife received a notice to vacate their apartment for failing to pay rent. JTCH alleged that Pineda owed the rent reductions he had received over the course of his employment. In response to the notice, the couple vacated the premises. Pineda’s wife joined his lawsuit, and they both asserted an FLSA retaliation claim based on JTCH’s demand for back rent.

JTCH successfully argued that Pena, a nonemployee, was not protected by the FLSA. While Pineda won both his FLSA overtime and retaliation claims at trial, he appealed the district court’s refusal to instruct the jury on the availability of damages for emotional distress as to his retaliation claim.

The Fifth Circuit noted that while Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits retaliation claims by spouses and others within the zone of interests protected by that statute, the text of the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision expressly limits protection to employees only. Thus, the Fifth Circuit found that the district court had properly dismissed Pena’s FLSA retaliation claim.

It found that the district court erred, however, in declining to instruct the jury on whether it believed Pineda had proven damages for emotional distress. Citing to the plain language of the FLSA’s damages provision, the Fifth Circuit held that a plaintiff may recover damages for emotional distress as part of an FLSA retaliation claim. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the case, in part, for trial on the issue of Pineda’s entitlement to compensation for emotional distress.

Key Takeaways

Individuals who bring a retaliation claim under the FLSA may now recover emotional distress damages.  Though an “employee” may now seek emotional distress damages, others, including spouses of employees, may not.  As such, employers may try to seek dismissal of such claim if a plaintiff asserting an FLSA retaliation claim is not an “employee” under the law.

If you feel like you have been retaliated for bringing a complaint for minimum wage or overtime wages to your employer, contact Juan to discuss what steps can be taken, if any, to get the compensation you are entitled to.