In Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, L.L.C. (No. 15-10932, December 19, 2016), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals joined the Sixth and Seventh Circuit Courts of Appeals in holding that an employee may recover for emotional distress damages in a retaliation claim asserted under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). At the same time, the Fifth Circuit held that only an employee can assert an FLSA retaliation claim.
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. Pena joined Pineda’s suit, and they both asserted an FLSA retaliation claim based on JTCH’s demand for back rent.
JTCH successfully disposed of Pena’s retaliation claim on summary judgment because, as a nonemployee, she was not protected by the FLSA. Pena appealed this decision. While Pineda prevailed on 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’s Decision
The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Pena’s retaliation claim. 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.
In the Fifth Circuit, employers should now be mindful that awards for employee retaliation claims under the FLSA may increase to include potential emotional distress damages. Though an employee may now seek emotional distress damages, others, including spouses of employees, may not. Thus, employers should continue to seek dismissal if a plaintiff asserting an FLSA retaliation claim is not an “employee” as defined by the statute.