The number of federal courts allowing plaintiffs to recover emotional distress damages in Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) retaliation cases is expanding, with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last month joining two other circuits that have permitted such damages. The case Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, L.L.C. (5th Circuit December 19, 2016), involved maintenance employee Santiago Pineda, who lived and worked at an apartment complex owned by the defendant, JTCH Apartments, LLC. As part of his compensation, Pineda received a discount on his rent.

During his employment, Pineda filed a lawsuit against JTCH for unpaid overtime wages. Three days after being served with the complaint, JTCH issued Pineda a notice to vacate the apartment for nonpayment of rent. The unpaid rent amount was equal to the rent reductions he had received during his employment. Upon receiving the notice to vacate, Pineda moved out of the apartment complex and amended his complaint to include a claim for retaliation under the FLSA.

During the trial, Pineda requested a jury instruction on emotional distress damages for his FLSA retaliation claim. He testified that he experienced marital discord, sleepless nights, and anxiety about his living situation. The court denied Pineda’s jury instruction request. The jury then returned a verdict in Pineda’s favor on his unpaid overtime and retaliation claims. Pineda appealed the trial court’s decision to deny his request for a jury instruction on emotional distress damages for his FLSA retaliation claim.

The appellate court said a question asking whether Pineda had proven any damages for emotional distress should have been submitted to the jury. The court noted that the FLSA provides that an employer who violates the retaliation provides “shall be liable for such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3) of this title, including without limitation employment, reinstatement, promotion, and the payment of wages lost and an additional equal amount as liquidated damages.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The court seized upon the clause “such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate” as providing the authority for emotional distress damages. The Fifth Circuit held that “this expansive language … should be read to include the compensation for emotional distress that is typically available for intentional torts like retaliatory discharge.” The court noted that while the question was a new one for the Fifth Circuit, the Sixth and Seventh Circuit Courts of Appeal have already held that emotional distress damages are allowed for FLSA retaliation cases, and the First, Eighth, and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal have maintained such awards in FLSA retaliation cases even though the legal question was not raised as an issue during the appeal. The Eleventh Circuit has not issued an opinion addressing emotional distress damages in FLSA retaliation cases. However, the Eleventh Circuit has maintained awards of emotional distress damages in FLSA retaliation cases even though the legal question was not raised on appeal, and courts in the Eleventh Circuit, such as the Middle District of Florida, have expressly allowed for such recovery.

The Takeaway For Employers

With the expanding acceptance of emotional distress damages in FLSA retaliation cases, employers should be mindful of increased exposure. Employers could be on the hook not only for back pay and an equal amount as liquidated damages, but also for emotional distress damages. As a result, employers should be vigilant when altering an employee’s terms or conditions of employment after the employee has made a complaint regarding compensation. Even small changes in an employee’s working conditions may lead an employee to claim retaliation.