Appeals Court Gives Plaintiffs Right to Sue for Emotional Damages Under FLSA

Appeals Court Gives Plaintiffs Right to Sue for Emotional Damages Under Fair Labor Standards Act

NEW YORK — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently handed down a ruling giving plaintiffs the right right to ask for emotional damages when bringing suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The case, Santiago Pineda, et al v. JTCH Apartments, L.L.C., et al, examined several complex legal questions and could set a strong precedent in future suits brought under the FLSA.

The case is a prime example of the risks wage theft victims take when bringing an unpaid overtime lawsuit against their employers and why it is so important that courts continue to enforce retaliation clauses in the FLSA. With its ruling, the U.S. Fifth Circuit joined the Sixth and Seventh Circuit Courts affirming an employee’s right to seek damages for emotional distress for retaliatory action under the FLSA, a provision added to the law in 1977.

The case began in 2013 when the plaintiff, living in the defendant’s apartment building and working as a repair technician, filed suit under the FLSA alleging the defendant failed to pay overtime wages. In response, the defendant allegedly evicted the plaintiff and his family as retaliation for bringing the action.

Although a jury found in favor of the plaintiff, awarding him unpaid overtime and liquidated damages equal to his back pay, the court denied the plaintiff’s request to have the jury consider awarding additional damages for emotional distress. The District Court judge overseeing the case reasoned the plaintiff could ask for such damages because he also brought suit under another federal law, the Age in Discrimination Employment Act ADEA, which bars such recovery unless the plaintiff exhausts his or her remedies.

The Appeals Court ruled the District Court incorrectly conflated the two statutes and the jury should have heard instructions on considering damages for emotional distress provided under the FLSA. By upholding plaintiffs’ rights to seek redress for retaliatory actions, workers across the country are now better protected than they were before.

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