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Workers can claim emotional distress under FLSA

Posted On: Dec. 20, 2016 12:32 PM CST

Plaintiffs can seek damages for emotional distress under the Fair Labor Standards Act, says an appeals court in overturning a lower court ruling in a case filed by an apartment complex’s former maintenance worker.

However, the FLSA does not protect employees’ spouses from retaliation, said the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in its ruling Monday in Santiago Pineda et al. v. JTCH Apartments L.L.C.; Simona Vizireanu.

Santiago Pineda and Maria Pena, a married couple, lived in an apartment complex in Irving, Texas, owned by Westlake, California-based JTCH Apartments L.L.C. and leased to Ms. Pena, according to the ruling.

Mr. Pineda did maintenance work in and around the apartment complex and as part of his compensation for this work, JTCH discounted Ms. Pena’s rent, according to the ruling.

Three days after Mr. Pineda filed suit seeking unpaid overtime under the FLSA, he and his wife received a notice to vacate their apartment for nonpayment of rent, with the amount demanded equal to the rent reductions Ms.  Pena had received during Mr. Pineda’s employment. The couple left the apartment in response to the notice.

Ms.  Pena then joined Mr. Pineda’s suit, with the complaint amended to include retaliation claims.  A jury in U.S. District Court in Dallas awarded Mr. $1,426.50 for his overtime wage claim and $3775.50 for retaliation. 

In appealing the ruling, the couple said the jury should have been instructed on damages for emotional harm, and that Ms. Pena should have been able to seek damages under the FLSA’s retaliation provision, both of which they had unsuccessfuly sought during proceedings.

Citing other appeals courts’ ruling on the issue, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit said plaintiffs can recover for emotional injuries under the FLSA. 

The FLSA’s “broad authorization of ‘legal and equitable relief encompasses compensation for emotional injuries suffered by an employee on account of employer retaliation,” said the ruling. 
“There was a factual basis for instructing the jury on that type of damage in Pineda’s case,” added the ruling.  “During trial, Pineda testified to experiencing marital discord, sleepless nights, and anxiety about where his family would live after JTCH made what the jury found to be a retaliatory demand for back rent.

“Such testimony is sufficient to enable a jury to find that the plaintiff experienced compensable emotional distress,’ said the ruling.  “A question asking whether Pineda had proven any damages for emotional distress should have been submitted to the jury.”

The panel affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Ms. Pena’s retaliation claim.  “Under the FLSA, it is only unlawful ‘to discharge … or discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint,’” said the ruling.

The case was remanded to the lower court for trial on the issue of whether Mr. Pineda is entitled to compensation for emotional distress.