The Fifth Circuit recently held that a plaintiff-employee in an FLSA retaliation claim can recover damages for emotional distress but that the statute does not provide a retaliation cause of action for a nonemployee spouse. In Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, LLC, an employee of the apartment complex who did maintenance work around the property and his spouse lived at the complex where the employee worked.  The employee was provided reduced rent as part of his compensation.

Pineda, the employee, initiated a lawsuit against his employer (and landlord) for unpaid overtime. Three days after being served with the lawsuit, the employer served the employee and his wife with notice to vacate their apartment for nonpayment of rent.  The overdue rent demanded by the employer equaled the amount of rent reductions the employee received over the term of his employment.

The couple vacated the apartment and then amended their lawsuit to add claims for retaliation. During the trial, the district court refused to charge the jury on the recovery of emotional distress damages for the employee.  The trial court also dismissed the spouse’s retaliation claim because the court concluded that only employees could bring a retaliation claim.  Following a jury trial in favor of the employee the district court entered judgment for the employee but not the wife ($1,426.50 overtime; $3,775.50 for retaliation; $1,476 liquidated damages and $76,732.88 in attorney’s fees).

Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of the spouse’s retaliation claim and the failure to charge the jury on the plaintiff-employee’s recovery of emotional distress damages. Acknowledging that it was an issue of first impression in the Fifth Circuit, the Court first addressed with the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision provided for emotional distress damages as a remedy for retaliation.  The Court first observed that Congress created an FLSA retaliation cause of action by its 1977 amendments to the FLSA allowing employees to recover wages, liquidated damages and “such legal and equitable relief as may be appropriate.”  This broad form of relief for retaliation plaintiffs encompassed emotional distress damages, the Court explained, because retaliation claims always result from intentional conduct.  In contrast, violations for failure to pay overtime or minimum wage can sometimes result from unintentional conduct and thereby justify more limited relief that excludes recovery for emotional distress.  Consequently, the Court concluded that damages for emotional distress are recoverable to a prevailing plaintiff in an FLSA retaliation claim.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the nonemployee spouse’s claim holding that nonemployees do not have the ability to bring an FLSA retaliation claim. Looking no further than the statutory language creating the cause of action that states that it is unlawful to “discharge or . . .discriminate against any employee . . .”, the Court easily concluded that nonemployees lack the ability to bring such claims.

You can download the full opinion in Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, LLC here.