Can a plaintiff get emotional distress damages in a wage and hour claim? In December 2016, the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion of first impression where it found that a plaintiff filing a retaliation claim as part of an overtime wage dispute can seek emotional distress damages. In Pineda v. JTCH Apartment, LLC, Santiago Pineda did maintenance work around the apartment complex where he and his wife lived. In exchange for the work, Mr. Pineda received a discount in rent, which he ended up considering insufficient and filed a lawsuit seeking unpaid overtime. In response, the apartment complex issued a notice to the couple stating that they were being thrown out of their apartment for nonpayment of rent. The amount of rent demanded equaled the rent reductions Mr. Pineda had been receiving in payment for his employment. The Pinedas left the apartment and amended their lawsuit to include a retaliation claim, including damages for emotional harm. At trial they presented proof of marital discord, sleepless nights, and anxiety about where their family would live. The Pinedas claimed that the mental distress was a result of the retaliation—-throwing them out of their apartment.
The trial court refused to instruct the jury on damages for emotional harm resulting from the alleged retaliation. The jury awarded Mr. Pineda damages on the claims that were allowed to go to the jury. The Plaintiffs appealed on numerous issues, including the trial court’s failure to let the jury consider emotional distress damages for the retaliation.
The Fifth Circuit pointed out that the question of whether emotional damages for retaliation under the FLSA is proper is one of statutory interpretation. The 1977 FLSA amendments specifically included a remedies provision for claims of retaliation under the overtime statute. That amendment allowed plaintiffs to recover not just wages and liquidated damages, but also “such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate.” The Fifth Circuit noted that several other Circuits had already upheld damages for emotional distress by referencing that statutory language. One of those Circuits, the Seventh, noted that compensation for emotional distress is appropriate for intentional torts such as retaliatory discharge. The Court noted that while not all wage and overtime claims involve willful actions by an employer (e.g., an employer can inadvertently pay less wages than the law requires), an employer “cannot unintentionally retaliate against an employee who complains about it.” Therefore, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the jury should have been allowed to award the Plaintiffs emotional distress damages based on the FLSA retaliation.
For employers, this decision again emphasizes how important it is to avoid any acts that can be construed as retaliation in response to an employee complaining about alleged wage problems. In this case, the retaliation was fairly easy to spot due to the direct correlation between the complaint and the eviction of the family. However, even subtle changes in a complaining employee’s work situation (e.g., moving the employee to a different shift, changing work assignments, etc.) may end up as fodder for a retaliation claim. In addition, emotional distress damages do not demand a high level of proof—-sleepless nights, anxiety, and marital discord require no documentation or expert testimony. For these reasons, employers must be careful of actions taken after an employee or former employee makes a wage complaint.