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January 04, 2017
Employers Can Owe Emotional Distress Damages in Wage Suits

Employees can be entitled to damages for emotional distress under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal appeals court has ruled.

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EvictionWith its ruling, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals—which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas—has joined at least two other circuits that have held that an employer may have to shell out extra damages when it retaliates against a complaining employee, causing difficulties such as “sleeplessness, anxiety, stress, marital problems, and humiliation.”

Facts of the Case

Santiago Pineda lived in an apartment owned by JTCH Apartments, LLC. Pineda performed maintenance work around the apartment complex and, a part of his compensation, the company discounted his rent.

He sued the company, alleging FLSA overtime violations. Three days after receiving notice of the suit, the company sent him a notice ordering him to vacate the apartment for failing to pay rent. It also demanded repayment of the amount it had discounted him. Pineda and his wife moved out and he amended his suit to include a retaliation claim.

During a jury trial, Pineda requested that the jury be instructed to consider emotional distress damages for his retaliation claim. He experienced marital discord, sleepless nights, and anxiety about where his family would live, he said. The district court, however, declined his request.

The jury awarded Pineda $1,426 for his overtime claim and $3,775 for his retaliation claim. The court also later awarded him another $1,426 in double damages. Pineda appealed, arguing that the jury should have been allowed to consider emotional distress damages.

Appeals Court Weighs In

On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed with Pineda. The FLSA doesn’t explicitly say that it provides for emotional distress damages but the two appeals courts that have considered the question ruled that it does (Moore v. Freeman, 355 F.3d 558, 563 (6th Cir. 2004); Travis v. Gary Cmty. Mental Health Ctr., 921 F.2d 108, 112 (7th Cir. 1990)), the 5th Circuit noted. And several other appeals courts have upheld jury awards that included such damages, without squarely addressing the question.

When Congress amended the FLSA in 1977, it added a provision stating that workers could seek wages, liquidated damages, and “such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate” for retaliation, the court explained. The Travis court first interpreted this to include damages for emotional distress and the Pineda court agreed.

And the lower court should have applied that provision in Pineda’s case, the 5th Circuit said. The jury determined that the company’s demand for back rent was made in retaliation for his wage claim, and Pineda presented enough evidence of emotional distress to have the jury consider the question.

The difficulties Pineda described were “sufficient to enable a jury to find that the plaintiff experienced compensable emotional distress,” the 5th Circuit said. “A question asking whether Pineda had proven any damages for emotional distress should have been submitted to the jury,” it concluded, remanding the case for trial (Pineda v. JTCH Apts., No. 15-10932 (Dec. 19, 2016)).

Kate TornoneKate McGovern Tornone is an editor at BLR. She has almost 10 years’ experience covering a variety of employment law topics and currently writes for HR Daily Advisor and HR.BLR.com. Before coming to BLR, she served as editor of Thompson Information Services’ ADA and FLSA publications, co-authored the Guide to the ADA Amendments Act, and published several special reports. She graduated from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., with a B.A. in media studies.

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