11th Cir.: Although § 255(a)’s Statute Of Limitations Is An Affirmative Defense That Must Be Specifically Pled, Defendants Sufficiently Did So With Language Referencing 2-3 Year Period In Their Pleadings

Following a jury verdict in favor of the Defendants, the Plaintiff appealed, based on a jury instruction the Court gave regarding the FLSA’s 2-3 statute of limitations.  Specifically, the Plaintiffs asserted that the Court erred in giving an instruction framing the applicable limitations period, because Defendants had failed to specifically plead statute of limitations as an affirmative defense.  However, construing Defendants’ pleadings in the case, as described below, to have pled such an affirmative defense, the Court affirmed the lower Court’s jury verdict, based on the instruction at issue.

The Eleventh Circuit explained:

“The district court instructed the jury as follows:

The Plaintiff is entitled to recover lost wages from the present time back to no more than two years before this lawsuit was filed on June 18, 2008, unless you find the employer either knew, or showed reckless disregard for the matter of whether its conduct was prohibited by the FLSA. If you find that the employer knew, or showed reckless disregard for the matter of whether its conduct was prohibited by the FLSA, the Plaintiff is entitled to recover lost wages from the present time back to no more than three years before this lawsuit was filed.

The jury answered “no” to the first question on the verdict form, concerning whether Appellees failed to pay Navarro overtime wages as required by law. Thereafter, Navarro filed this appeal.

On appeal, Navarro urges that the district court’s application of § 255(a)‘s limitation was improper because Appellees had waived the limitation by failing to properly plead it in their Answer. Appellees, on the other hand, urge that § 255(a) is not a traditional statute of limitations that must be raised as an affirmative defense. In the alternative, they claim that they adequately raised the limitation in their Answer and in the pretrial stipulations submitted to the district court.

The Court reviews a district court’s instructions to the jury for abuse of discretion. U.S. v. Lopez, 590 F.3d 1238, 1247-48 (11th Cir.2009). The Court reviews de novo a district court’s grant of a F.R.Civ.P. 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law. D’Angelo v. Sch. Bd., 497 F.3d 1203, 1208 (11th Cir.2007).

This Court has held that the § 255(a) statute of limitations is “an affirmative defense which must be specifically pled.” Day v. Liberty Nat’l Life Ins. Co., 122 F.3d 1012, 1015 (11th Cir.1997) (citing F.R.Civ.P. 8(c)).  In Day, the Court ruled that the defendant had waived the § 255(a) statute of limitations by failing to assert it until after the jury had rendered a verdict. As a result, the Court reversed the district court’s grant of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict based on the statute of limitations defense. Id. at 1015-16 The Day Court emphasized the fact that the defendant’s failure to raise the defense until after the jury rendered a verdict deprived the plaintiff of the opportunity to contest the application of the limitation. Id. at 1015 (“[I]f [the defendant] had brought the limitations issue to the court during the … trial, [the plaintiff] could have offered evidence that the statute was tolled during some period of time, or have insisted that the jury instructions reflect the effect of the statute of limitations on any possible recovery by him.”). In finding a waiver, the Day Court relied on the Fifth Circuit’s earlier opinion in Pearce v. Wichita County, 590 F.2d 128, 134 (5th Cir.1979). The Pearce Court had addressed a situation almost identical to that in the Day case. In Pearce, the defendant had not raised the statute of limitations defense in its pleadings or in objection to the court’s jury instructions. Id. It had waited until after the jury verdict, finally bringing the limitations issue to the Court’s attention in a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Id. The Pearce Court held that such a delay constituted waiver of any objection to the limitations period that was applied. Id.

The case at hand is clearly distinguishable from the Day and Pearce cases, however, as Appellees raised § 255(a) several times before the case was submitted to the jury. First, Appellees stated in their Answer (under the heading “Affirmative Defenses”) that “[a]ny violation of the [FLSA] by Defendants was not willful, and was wholly unintentional. Defendants continuously acted in good faith with regard to the administration of its [sic] pay plan.” Next, more than a month before trial, the two-or-three-year limitation was referenced more than once in the parties’ Joint Pretrial Stipulation. Specifically, under the heading “Defendants’ Statement of the Case,” Appellees stated that “Defendants dispute … that Plaintiff was not paid for any overtime he may have worked during the last two or three years of his employment.” Also, in the Stipulation, the parties stated that the following fact was agreed upon and would not require proof at trial: “The corporate Defendant grossed in excess of $500,000.00 per year during the last three years of Plaintiff’s employment.” Finally, the parties and the court addressed this matter during trial, when, following the close of Navarro’s case, the Appellees based several motions for directed verdict on the three-year maximum limitations period. Navarro’s counsel, armed with case law, responded with the contention that the Appellees had not pled § 255(a) as an affirmative defense. The Court reviewed the proffered case, but ultimately ruled that § 255(a) would apply so that, at most, Navarro would recover for a three-year time period. Thus, this case stands in stark contrast to the Day and Pearce cases, where defendants had waived the defense by not raising it until after the jury had rendered a verdict.

The Court finds that Appellees timely raised the § 255(a) statute of limitations. Even if Appellees’ assertions in their Answer did not comply with a strict reading of F.R.Civ.P. 8(c), under this Court’s precedent, the limitation was still not waived. That is, although Rule 8(c) requires that a statute of limitations defense be raised as an affirmative defense, this Court has noted that “the purpose of Rule 8(c) is to give the opposing party notice of the affirmative defense and a chance to rebut it,” and, as a result, “if a plaintiff receives notice of an affirmative defense by some means other than the pleadings, ‘the defendant’s failure to comply with Rule 8(c) does not cause the plaintiff any prejudice.’ “ Grant v. Preferred Research, Inc., 885 F.2d 795, 797 (11th Cir.1989) (quoting Hassan v. U.S. Postal Serv., 842 F.2d 260, 263 (11th Cir.1988)). In Grant, the defendant raised the statute of limitations defense for the first time in a motion for summary judgment filed approximately one month before trial. Id. This court ruled that, because the plaintiff was “fully aware” that the defendant intended to rely on the defense, and because the plaintiff did not assert any prejudice from the lateness of the pleading, the defendant’s failure to comply with Rule 8(c) did not result in a waiver. Id. at 797-98.

As demonstrated above, in this case, Navarro was given ample notice of Appellees’ intent to rely on § 255(a) in several instances prior to trial. Moreover, when the issue was debated in light of the Appellees’ directed verdict motions, Navarro’s counsel made a thorough argument (including case citations) against the statute’s application. He never claimed during that argument that he had been surprised or somehow otherwise prejudiced by defense counsel’s reliance upon § 255(a) at trial. As a result, the district court did not err in limiting the jury’s consideration of unpaid overtime to the two-or three-year period prior to the filing of the complaint. Further, because it was uncontested that there was no evidence that Domingo or Rosa Santos exercised any active supervisory control over the company for the period three years prior to the filing of the complaint, the district court did not err in granting Appellees’ motion for judgment as a matter of law on the issue of the individual liability of either of them. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment entered on the jury’s verdict.”

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Filed under Affirmative Defenses, Pleadings

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