The Fifth Circuit, which includes Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, recently held that employees who file a claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) may seek damages for emotional harm. Two other circuits, the Sixth Circuit (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee) and the Seventh Circuit (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin), provide for emotional distress damages in FLSA cases. Although damages of this nature are permitted, they have only been allowed under certain circumstances.
The FLSA, which governs federal wage and hour requirements, also contains an anti-retaliation provision. This means that employers are prohibited from taking adverse employment action against employees who complain about, or participate in proceedings related to, the employer’s compliance with the FLSA.
The Fifth Circuit, in Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, LLC, likened retaliatory actions to intentional torts, which carry a wider variety of damages that can be pursued, including damages for emotional harm. Following this comparison, the Court held that the FLSA’s language, which allows for “such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate,” should be interpreted broadly to cover emotional harm stemming from retaliatory actions.
Although the Fifth Circuit is not the first to allow plaintiffs to pursue emotional damages in FLSA retaliation cases, this decision may indicate a trend towards providing plaintiffs with expansive damages. Further, this decision will likely have a direct effect on employers outside of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits, as it could provide guidance to other courts and circuits. Because of the potential amount of damages that may be awarded, employers need to be cautious when responding to employee concerns relating to wage and hour issues. Prudent employers will continue to stay up-to-date on FLSA liabilities and adjust their practices accordingly to avoid unnecessary liability.