Tag Archives: 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)

5th Cir.: Department Head Who Notified Employer of Potential FLSA Violations Did Not Engage in Protected Activity, Because She Did Not “Step Outside Her Normal Job Role”

Lasater v. Texas A & M University-Commerce

This case was before the Fifth Circuit on appeal of an order awarding the defendant summary judgment on plaintiff’s FLSA retaliation claim. Specifically, the plaintiff, a former department head for the defendant asserted that she was terminated for raising concerns regarding the defendant’s payroll policies (and failure to comply with the FLSA) to an independent auditor and later her supervisors. The court below held that plaintiff failed to allege that she had engaged in protected activity, because she was merely performing her duties for defendant when she reported her concerns regarding non-compliance. The Fifth Circuit agreed and affirmed the award of summary judgment for the defendant.

The Fifth Circuit recited the following factual history:

This case arises from TAMUC’s termination of Lasater’s employment in December 2009. From March 2006 to December 2009, Lasater was employed as the Director of the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships at TAMUC. Prior to that, Lasater worked in the Financial Aid Department at Texas A & M University–Corpus Christi for 17 years.

In November 2008, Lasater met with Lori Ellison, an outside auditor from The Texas A & M University System who was conducting a regularly scheduled audit. During the meeting, Lasater alleges that Ellison asked her if she had any “concerns” and Lasater told her that “there were some things that were of concern to me and I felt like I needed to, in good faith, report some things that I thought were violations, including comp time.” Lasater alleges that in the course of the conversation with Ellison she discussed a number of problems related to the university’s employee compensatory time (“comp time”) policy. First, she was concerned that comp time had to be used before vacation time; because vacation time would be lost if not taken before the end of the year, this could in turn cause employees to lose accrued comp time. She also voiced her concerns that employees in her department had accrued large balances of comp time and were too busy for Lasater to allow them to timely use their comp time and still meet the demands of her office. Third, she specifically expressed her concerns about one of her employees, Diane Lewis, who had been promoted to a position within the department exempt from the overtime requirements of the FLSA and TAMUC had declined Lasater’s request that Lewis be paid for her accrued comp time after her promotion. Finally, Lasater alleges that she reported to Ellison her concerns about the operation of TAMUC’s Financial Services division, including its failure to “draw down” its allotted federal funds and the fact that it was not performing monthly reconciliations related to federal funds for financial aid. At the time of the meeting Lasater did not suggest to Ellison that TAMUC policies regarding comp time violated the FLSA or refer to any applicable law she believed had been violated.

Relevant TAMUC policy provides that employees who are not exempt under the FLSA may earn comp time for working more than forty hours per week; the policy requires component universities to compensate employees by giving them time off rather than paying them overtime. TAMUC policy also provided that administrators who supervise staff were to ensure that no employee accrue a comp time balance in excess of 240 hours and that, if necessary, employees were to use comp time before taking vacation time. Lasater, as a supervisor, had the responsibility for approving, and the authority to deny, employee leave requests. The policy also states that an employee who transfers between departments may, upon the department managers’ agreement, be paid for accumulated comp time but no policy required payment for comp time to an employee promoted within a department. TAMUC policy additionally provides that inquiries or interpretations of FLSA legal issues should be directed to the System Human Resources Office or the Office of General Counsel.

In December 2008, Ellison reported Lasater’s concerns up the chain of command to Lasater’s supervisor, Stephanie Holley; Mary Hendrix, Vice President for Student Access and Success; and Dan Jones, President of TAMUC. Lasater alleges that shortly after her conversation with the auditor Holley and Hendrix demanded to know why she had reported the comp time issue and began to act colder toward her, harassed her, increased their scrutiny of her, and forced her to take unqualified employees.

In May 2009, Holley gave Lasater a favorable evaluation, and in August, Lasatar received a merit raise. In September 2009, Holley and Hendrix met with Lasater and discussed their concerns about the need for a training manual, the role of Lewis, and how Lasater was not “allowing other people into [her] inner circle.” In early December 2009, Rose Giles, one of Lasater’s subordinates, approached Holley to discuss her frustration with the fact that she did not feel Lasater’s staff was properly trained. Holley then spoke with Susan Grove, the Assistant Director of Scholarships, who alleged that Lasater did not adequately train her staff, spent most of her time with co-employee Lewis to the exclusion of all others, repeatedly arrived late, and had a tendency to “lash out.” Grove stated that she was so distressed by Lasater’s management style that she was planning to leave the university. On December 15, 2009, Holley and Hendrix informed Lasater that her employment was terminated.

Discussing the type of behavior a management-level employee must engage in, for such behavior/activity to constitute “protected activity,” the court explained:

[T]his circuit has recognized that an employee’s communication does not constitute a complaint unless that employee “somehow steps outside of his normal job role” so as to make clear to the employer that the employee is “taking a position adverse to the employer.” Id. at 627–28. Such a requirement is “eminently sensible for management employees” because a managerial position “necessarily involves being mindful of the needs and concerns of both sides and appropriately expressing them.” Id. at 628. Thus, voicing “concerns is not only not adverse to the company’s interests, it is exactly what the company expects of a manger.” Id. (emphasis in original). Without such a requirement, “nearly every activity in the normal course of a manager’s job would be protected activity.” Id.

Illustratively, a personnel director responsible for monitoring compliance with workplace laws did not engage in protected activity when she discussed her “concerns about the company’s possible FLSA violations” with the president of the company. McKenzie v. Renberg’s Inc., 94 F.3d 1478, 1481 (10th Cir.1996). The Tenth Circuit found her “job responsibilities” included discussing wage issues and that assisting the company with FLSA compliance was “completely consistent with her duties.” Hagan, 529 F.3d at 627 (quoting McKenzie, 94 F.3d at 1487). It held that it is “the assertion of statutory rights (i.e., the advocacy of rights) by taking some action adverse to the company … that is the hallmark of protected activity.” Id. (emphasis in original) (quoting McKenzie, 94 F.3d at 1486). Thus because McKenzie “never crossed the line from being an employee merely performing her job as personnel director to an employee lodging a personal complaint about the wage and hour practices of her employer and asserting a right adverse to the company,” her discussion of her FLSA violation concerns with the president could not reasonably “be perceived as directed towards the assertion of rights protected by the FLSA.” Id. (emphasis in original) (quoting McKenzie, 94 F.3d at 1486–87).

Applying this standard to the facts at bar, the court held that the plaintiff failed to show she stepped outside of her normal job role in reporting her concerns regarding the defendant’s comp time system to the auditor and to her supervisors. Further, the court noted that even if she had, her actions could not reasonably be construed to have asserted FLSA rights on behalf of herself or the employees who were the subject of her conversations. Thus, the court affirmed summary judgment for the defendant.

Click Lasater v. Texas A & M University-Commerce to read the entire per curiam decision.

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D.Md.: Compensatory Damages for Emotional Distress Are Available Under §§ 215 and 216(b) for Retaliation Claims

Randolph v. ADT Sec. Services, Inc.

This case was before the court on several pretrial motions of the parties. As discussed here, among the issues briefed before the court was whether compensatory damages are available to a plaintiff-employee pursuing a claim of retaliation under the FLSA. The court answered this question in the affirmative, noting the issue was one of first impression within the Fourth Circuit.

Restating the parties’ respective positions, the court explained:

ADT maintains that, as a matter of law, Plaintiffs are precluded from seeking emotional distress damages because such damages are unavailable under “the very similar damages provision of the ADEA.” (ECF No. 101, at 18). Plaintiffs disagree, pointing to several circuit court opinions upholding such awards. On this issue, Plaintiffs have the better end of the argument.

The court noted that the issue presented was one of first impression in the Fourth Circuit and then examined case law from other circuit and district level courts:

Neither the Fourth Circuit nor any district court within this circuit has previously determined whether a plaintiff may recover compensatory damages from emotional distress in an FLSA action. Four circuit courts of appeal—the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits—have, however, either directly or indirectly addressed the issue, and all have permitted the recovery of emotional distress damages. Moore v. Freeman, 355 F.3d 558, 563–64 (6th Cir.2004) (explaining that “consensus on the issue of compensatory damages for mental and emotional distress [in FLSA cases] seems to be developing”); Broadus v. O.K. Indus., Inc., 238 F.3d 990, 992 (8th Cir.2001) (upholding a compensatory award that may have included damages for emotional distress); Lambert v. Ackerley, 180 F.3d 997, 1011 (9th Cir.1999) (affirming an award of emotional distress damages in an FLSA action); Avitia v. Metro. Club of Chi., Inc., 49 F.3d 1219, 1226–30 (7th Cir.1995) (reducing an award for emotional distress damages after finding the award excessive, but noting that such damages are available under the FLSA (citing Travis, 921 F.2d at 111–12)).

The compensatory nature of the remedies in § 216(b) supports the outcome in these cases. “The [FLSA's] statutory scheme contemplates compensation in full for any retaliation employees suffer from reporting grievances.” Moore, 355 F.3d at 563 (citing Snapp, 208 F.3d at 934; Lanza, 97 F.Supp.2d at 740); Republic Franklin Ins. Co. v. Albemarle Cnty. Sch. Bd., 670 F.3d 563, 568 (4th Cir.2012) (citing Snapp and Lanza for the proposition that the relief provided in § 216(b) “is compensatory in nature”). The text of § 216(b) expressly provides for “such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate” this compensatory purpose, employing the broad phrase “without limitation” to indicate that the enumerated remedies within that section are not exhaustive. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). “[L]ike the forms of relief mentioned [therein], damages for mental anguish are intended to compensate the injured party for harm suffered.”   Moore, 355 F.3d at 564.

Certainly, an argument could be made that the availability of liquidated damages [under § 216(b) ] would be sufficient to fully compensate a plaintiff with proof of actual economic damages but only minor, subjective mental anguish occasioned by an employer’s violation of the [FLSA]. However, in a case involving only nominal economic losses but proved retaliation consisting of concerted, directed harassment, resulting in grave emotional distress, such nominal economic damages or the available doubling of those damages would be insufficient to make the plaintiff whole. Damages for mental anguish would be the necessary compensatory legal relief “appropriate to effectuate the purposes of [the anti-retaliation provision].” Bogacki v. Buccaneers Ltd. P’ship, 370 F.Supp.2d 1201, 1203 (M.D.Fla.2005) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 216(b)); cf. Snapp, 208 F.3d at 937 (reasoning that “district courts may have to exercise some creativity in awarding relief in retaliation cases” beyond those forms set forth in the statutory text).

The court then rejected the contrary holdings of courts that had held ADEA cases to be persuasive based upon the fact that the ADEA was patterned after the FLSA, noting that such reasoning:

fails to consider that the relief authorized under both statutes must be determined ‘not in isolation, but in conjunction with the other provisions of the Act[s], the policies they further, and the enforcement framework[s] they envision.’ Dean, 559 F.2d at 1038.” The court further distinguished the ADEA legislative framework by pointing out that “[t]he ADEA includes an administrative conciliation process that is critical to its enforcement framework… [and] [l]ooking to this process, circuit courts have repeatedly held that emotional distress damages are unavailable in ADEA actions because they would impede mediation and conciliation by discouraging early resolution of ADEA claims.

Thus, the court concluded:

Because “full compensation is the evident purpose and paramount policy” in an FLSA retaliation action, “the more reasoned approach” would permit a plaintiff who makes a proper showing to recover damages for emotional distress. Id.; Moore, 355 F.3d at 563–64. Neither party here has addressed the strength or weakness of Plaintiffs’ evidence of alleged emotional distress. Until the parties do so at trial, the court cannot conclude—as a matter of law—”that damages for mental anguish should be disallowed.” Id. at 1205–06.  Plaintiffs will be permitted to seek emotional distress damages through a jury trial, and their motion on this issue will, therefore, be granted.

In light of the continuing disagreement of courts regarding this issue, this might be one to watch for further appellate level developments in the future.

Click Randolph v. ADT Sec. Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.

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E.D.Va.: Applicant For A Job May Not Assert An Action For FLSA Retaliation, Because Not A Covered “Employee” Of The Potential Employer

Dellinger v. Science Applications Intern. Corp.

This case was before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendant.  Plaintiff alleged that Defendant violated the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) codified at 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), by refusing to hire her after they received notice that she had filed a separate FLSA action against a former employer.  Defendant moved to dismiss on the basis that Plaintiff was never an “employee” of Defendant, and the Court granted Defendant’s Motion on this basis.

The Court reasoned:

“In a statutory construction case, the beginning point must be the language of the statute, and when a statute speaks with clarity to an issue [,] judicial inquiry into the statute’s meaning, in all but the most extraordinary circumstance, is finished.” Ramey v. Director, office of Workers’ Compensation Program, 326 F.3d 474, 476 (4th Cir.2003)(citing Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Co. ., 505 U.S. 469, 475, 112 S.Ct. 2589, 120 L.Ed.2d 379 (1992)). The statute at issue here, 29 U.S.C. § 215 states, in pertinent part:

(a) [I]t shall be unlawful for any person …

(3) to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter …

29 U.S.C. § 215 (emphasis added). Congress chose to define “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1). For an individual to be “employed” by an “employer” they must be “suffer[ed] or permitt[ed] to work.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(g). Here, Plaintiff was never “permitted” to work for SAIC, in fact, her main allegation is that the offer of employment was withdrawn. (See Compl. ¶ 34.).

The two district courts that have addressed this issue have found that a job applicant should not be considered an “employee” for purposes of the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA. In Harper v. San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center, an applicant for a nursing position at defendant hospital was involved in an unrelated federal wage claim suit against several municipalities. Harper, 848 F.Supp. 911 (D.Colo.1994). The hospital hired several allegedly less qualified individuals over plaintiff Harper and Harper filed suit alleging FLSA retaliation. In reaching its decision the Court specifically relied on the plain language of the statute, noting that “where a statute names parties who come within its provisions, other unnamed parties are excluded.” Id. at 913-914 (D.Colo.1994) (citing Foxgord v. Hischemoeller, 820 F.2d 1030, 1035, cert. denied, 484 U.S. 986, 108 S.Ct. 503, 98 L.Ed.2d 502, (9th Cir.1987); See Contract Courier Services, Inc. v. Research and Special Programs Admin. of U.S. Depart. of Transp., 924 F.2d 112, 114 (7th Cir.1991)(holding “statutory words mean nothing unless they distinguish one situation from another; line-drawing is the business of language”). The Court in Harper held that § 215(a)(3) “specifically identifies those individuals who come within its provisions i.e. employees. Therefore, other unnamed parties such as non-employee job applicants are excluded from its protection.” Harper, 848 F.Supp. at 914.

In the similar case of Glover v. City of North Charleston, plaintiff was also the lead plaintiff in a separate FLSA wage and hour suit against the North Charleston (Fire Dept.) District. Glover, 42 F.Supp. 243 (D.S.C.1996). After Glover brought suit against the District, the District Fire Department was disbanded and the City of North Charleston Fire Department was formed; however, the City had discretion to determine which of the District Department’s employees would be hired. Id. at 245. In his suit against the City, Glover alleged a violation of § 215(a)(3) claiming the City’s decision not to hire Glover was retaliation for his earlier FLSA claims. In dismissing the case, the Glover court found that plaintiffs were job applicants and thus not yet “employees” within the meaning of the Act. Id. at 246.

In so doing, the Court drew a careful distinction between § 215‘s initial language holding that it “shall be unlawful for any person ” to commit certain acts (§ 215(a)), and more limited language of the provision at issue here, protecting “any employee ” from the person’s misconduct (§ 215(a)(3)). Id. at 245-246 (emphasis added). The court found that the statute’s application to “any person” did not bar suit against the “non-employer” City, however, the plain language of the statue restricting its protections to “any employee” did mean that a mere job “applicant” did not have standing to bring a § 215 action. Id. As the Glover court found, the first sentence of the statute applies to “any person,” if “Congress wanted to cover non-employees, it could have written § 215(a)(3) to prevent discrimination [or retaliation] against “any person” instead of “any employee.” Id. at 246-247. Based on the plain language of the statute, the courts that have considered the issue have found that § 215(a)(3) does not cover job applicants.

Plaintiff attempts to distinguish these cases as outliers and non-binding on this Court. As decisions from other Districts they are clearly not binding precedent, however, their reasoning is, contrary to Plaintiff’s argument, applicable here. Both opinions rest on the plain language of the statute and both were unwilling to read the term “employee” to mean an individual who was never employed the Defendant.

Defendant points to the leading Fourth case regarding the sufficiency of an anti-retaliation claim under FLSA, Darveau v. Detecon, Inc., 515 F.3d 334 (4th Cir.2008.) In the Fourth Circuit, to assert a prima facie claim of retaliation under the FLSA a plaintiff must show: “that (1) he engaged in an activity protected by the FLSA; (2) he suffered adverse action by the employer subsequent to or contemporaneous with such protected activity; and (3) a causal connection exists between the employee’s activity and the employer’s adverse action.” Darveau v. Detecon, Inc., 515 F.3d 334, 340 (4th Cir.2008) (citing Wolf v. Coca-Cola Co., 200 F.3d 1337, 1342-43 (11th Cir.2000); Conner v. Schnuck Mkts., Inc., 121 F.3d 1390, 1394 (10th Cir.1997)). Similarly, Defendant argues that as the Fourth Circuit standard requires a “casual connection” between the “employee’s activity” and the “employer’s” action, Plaintiff has no standing to bring suit as she was never an “employee.” (Mem. in Supp. Mot. to Dismiss at 4.) Without reading beyond the plain language of the statute, a job applicant cannot be considered an ‘employee.’ “

Although not highlighted here, the Court also rejected several alternative arguments put forth by Plaintiff, that the Court should look beyond the FLSA, to statutory definitions and construction of Title VII and the NLRA statutes.

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M.D.Fla.: Compensatory Damages Available To Plaintiff In FLSA Retaliation Claim

Vaccaro v. Custom Sounds, Inc.

This case was before the Court, following Defendant’s default.  The Court set the matter for an evidentiary hearing on the issue of damages to be awarded in the final default judgment.  Of significance the Court ruled that an employee terminated in retaliation for engaging in FLSA protected activity may recover non-economic or compensatory damages. 

Discussing the issue of compensatory damages the Court stated:

“In addition to lost wages as a result of retaliation, Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages in the amount of $10,000.00 for emotional distress associated with the retaliation. See Total Damages Calculation. The damages provision for retaliation claims does not speak directly to compensatory damages for emotional distress, but states that the employer “shall be liable for such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of [the anti-retaliation provision] …” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).

At least two judges in the Middle District of Florida have come to apparently opposite conclusions regarding whether compensatory damages for emotional distress are available pursuant to section 216(b). The Court in Bolick v. Brevard County Sheriff’s Dept. held that “[p]unitive and emotional damages are not available under the FLSA” and granted partial summary judgment to a defendant on the issues of punitive and emotional damages. 937 F.Supp. 1560, 1566-67 (M.D.Fla.1996). Since then, in Bogacki, the Court was faced with the issue of whether the retaliation provision of the FLSA provides for compensatory damages as a result of emotional distress. 370 F.Supp.2d at 1201-02. The Bogacki Court referenced the Sixth Circuit’s recognition in Moore v. Freeman, 355 F.3d 558, 564 (6th Cir.2004) that the Seventh Circuit, the Eighth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit “directly or indirectly have allowed emotional distress awards under the FLSA to stand.” Bogacki, 370 F.Supp.2d at 1203 (internal citations omitted). Ultimately, the Bogacki Court determined that “each [retaliation] case should stand or fall on its own merit” and denied without prejudice a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on mental anguish damages because “neither party ha[d] addressed the strength, weakness, or absence of any evidence of the Plaintiff’s alleged emotional distress …” Id. at 1205-06.

Here, the Court has previously found that Defendants admitted, by defaulting, that “Plaintiff suffered emotional distress as a result of his termination.” Order (Doc. No. 19) at 2. Notwithstanding this factual finding, the Court recognized that “allegations relating to the amount and character of damages are not admitted by virtue of default. Rather, the Court determines the amount and character of damages to be awarded.” Id. at 3 (internal citation omitted). In assessing the issue of damages available for a retaliation claim, it is not entirely clear whether the Eleventh Circuit would approve awarding compensatory damages for emotional distress; however, the Court’s analysis in Bogacki, combined with other circuits’ approval of such damages and the Eleventh Circuit’s handling of the issues presented in Olivas, leads the undersigned to believe that the Eleventh Circuit would conclude that compensatory damages for emotional distress can be awarded in FLSA cases. 

Plaintiff testified his employer fired him as a result of his inquiry regarding unpaid overtime. When Plaintiff attempted to pick up his last paycheck, Plaintiff was told to “take it out of [his employer's] a* *.” No other egregious actions were undertaken or words spoken by the employer.

During his unemployment, Plaintiff was engaged to be married, had a two-year-old daughter, and had to rely on his parents to support his family. Plaintiff stayed with his soonto-be father-in-law. Plaintiff’s “mother” helped him pay for necessaries, his cellular phone bill, and insurance. According to Plaintiff, these stressful events caused him to be upset and embarrassed. The events “took a toll” on his relationship with his fiancé. The undersigned credits Plaintiff’s testimony in this regard. However, considering Plaintiff’s testimony in the framework of other cases in which courts have considered appropriate amount of damages for emotional distress claims, the undersigned finds as a factual matter that based upon the harm suffered by Plaintiff, $5,000.00 is a fair and reasonable amount. See Perez v. Jasper Trading, Inc., No. 05 CV 1725(ILG)(VVP), 2007 WL 4441062, at *8 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 17, 2007) (unpublished) (recognizing emotional distress awards involving facts similar to those in that case “usually range from $5,000 to $30,000”) (internal citations omitted).  Although it is undeniable that Plaintiff suffered some form of emotional distress (and indeed the Court has already so found), the facts of this relatively unremarkable FLSA case do not warrant an award of $10,000.00 for such distress.  Accordingly, the undersigned recommends awarding $5,000.00 in compensatory damages for emotional distress.”

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Supreme Court Agrees To Decide Whether A Verbal Complaint To An Employer Is Sufficient To Trigger FLSA Anti-Retaliation Protections

Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari to decide whether the question:

“Is an oral complaint of a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act protected conduct under the anti-retaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3)?”

In a decision discussed here,  the 7th Circuit previously held that “any complaint” includes an employee’s internal complaint to his or her own company.  However, the Court also held that an employee who complains verbally, not in writing, has not engaged in statutorily protected activity, so he or she is not protected by the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision.

Following the decision, the Plaintiff sought a rehearing en banc.  In the decision denying a rehearing en banc, three 7th Circuit judges dissented.  The dissenting judges noted that the 7th Circuit was the only Circuit to construe the definition of protected activity so narrowly.  Now the Supreme Court will decide whether they were right, or whether the remedial nature of the FLSA supports protection from retaliation for those who make verbal complaints, but not complaints in writing.

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M.D.Tenn.: Police Officers Who Allegedly Arrested Employees In Retaliation For Informal Unpaid Wage Complaints Are Properly Defendants In A 29 U.S.C. § 215(a) Case

Montano-Perez v. Durrett Cheese Sales, Inc.

Defendant, a local Police Department, sued for their alleged role in retaliating against Plaintiffs, in cooperation with Plaintiffs’ employer filed a Motion to Dismiss the FLSA Retaliation claims asserted against it.  For the reasons discussed below, the Court denied the Police Department’s motion.

The Court cited the following extensive facts as relevant to its inquiry:

“The plaintiffs are Latino immigrants who moved to the Manchester, Tennessee, area from impoverished regions of Mexico. The plaintiffs speak either Mixteco, an indigenous Mexican language, or Spanish as their primary language. Shanna Ramirez was a supervisor with Durrett Cheese during the relevant time period, and she recruited and hired members of the Mixteco community in Manchester to work in non-supervisory positions with Durrett Cheese. Mostly all of the non-supervisory positions in the Durrett Cheese factory were filled by Latino workers of Mexican descent. The plaintiffs were hired by Durrett Cheese at various points in the late 2006 to late 2007 time period. After being hired, the plaintiffs performed various jobs in the factory, including “in-line” jobs slicing, packaging, and processing cheese for sale. At the time of hire, the plaintiffs understood that Durrett Cheese would pay them on a weekly basis at an hourly rate between approximately $6.00 and $6.75 per hour.

The plaintiffs’ employment with Durrett Cheese was problematic. The plaintiffs’ direct supervisor, Ms. Ramirez, frequently made offensive and potentially humiliating comments to the plaintiffs about their race, national origin, intelligence, language, and customs, among other things. Durrett Cheese also frequently failed to timely pay the plaintiffs at the applicable federal minimum wage. These problems persisted before and after Durrett Cheese’s August 2007 bankruptcy filing.

Indeed, in many workweeks in August, September, and October 2007, Durrett Cheese grossly underpaid the plaintiffs. In some workweeks during this time period, the plaintiffs were not paid at all, and some plaintiffs worked for more than a month during this time period without being paid. The plaintiffs regularly requested their unpaid wages during this period, often approaching Ramirez in groups to inquire about their pay. Acting through Ramirez, Durrett Cheese either postponed pay days or simply refused to pay the plaintiffs for the work they had performed. Ramirez convinced the plaintiffs to continue working by telling them that they would not receive their back pay if they quit, and that they would receive more back pay if they worked at higher production levels.

The tension over pay and working conditions came to a head in October 2007. On Friday, October 19, 2007, the plaintiffs made repeated requests to Ramirez for several weeks of back pay. Ramirez informed the plaintiffs that they would not be paid until the following Monday. On hearing this news, the plaintiffs met to plan a collective action to protest the continued non-payment of wages.

The following Monday, October 22, 2007, during the usual mid-morning break, the plaintiffs assembled in the Durrett Cheese break room and again requested their overdue pay from Ramirez. The plaintiffs were told by Ramirez that no checks would be distributed until defendant Durrett arrived, and, until that time, the plaintiffs could either return to work or leave for good (and risk never receiving their back pay). The plaintiffs refused to return to work, stating that they would only do so when they received their wages. In response, Ramirez fired the plaintiffs and ordered them off company property. The plaintiffs informed Ramirez that they would not leave the break room until they received their wages.

As the plaintiffs continued to wait in the break room, Ramirez conferred with Ron Girts, another supervisor at Durrett Cheese, and defendant Durrett. Defendant Durrett ordered Girts and Ramirez to call the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department. Officer-defendants Jones, Partin, and Barker responded to the call and headed to the Durrett Cheese factory. When the officers arrived, Ramirez, Girts, and the plaintiffs informed the officers that management and the employees were engaged in a dispute over unpaid wages. The officers noted the nature of the dispute in their incident report.

The plaintiffs allege that, at this point, the officers with the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department and the supervisors employed by Durrett Cheese began working together to defeat the plaintiffs’ wage complaints. For instance, a supervisor, either Ramirez or Girts, informed the officers that the plaintiffs were undocumented immigrants and should, therefore, be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The officers were also provided with paperwork from Durrett Cheese to assist in reporting the plaintiffs.

The officers told the plaintiffs that, if they did not leave the Durrett Cheese premises, they would be arrested and taken to the Coffee County jail. After the plaintiffs expressed their intent to remain in the break room, the officers arrested the plaintiffs and transported them, via Sheriff’s Department van, to the Coffee County jail. The officers’ supervisors, defendants Freeman and Graves, were advised of the situation as it unfolded and approved of the arrests. During the arrests, the officers, along with Ramirez, laughed at the plaintiffs, referred to the plaintiffs’ race and national origin, and made statements about sending the plaintiffs “back to Mexico.” In total, the entire work stoppage incident lasted less than two hours, and, at all times, it was peaceful and entirely confined to the Durrett Cheese break room.

At the Coffee County jail, the plaintiffs were booked on charges of trespassing and were detained. Over the course of the day on October 22, the plaintiffs were separated from their families and kept in the dark about what would happen to them. The plaintiffs slept on mattresses in a crowded jail cell and were denied free access to restroom facilities. The next day, October 23, the Coffee County District Attorney dropped all charges against the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs allege that, while they were detained, defendants Graves and Freeman consulted with supervisors at Durrett Cheese as to how to proceed, in light of the ongoing labor dispute between Durrett Cheese and the plaintiffs. Durrett Cheese and defendant Graves agreed that, regardless of the charges being dropped, the plaintiffs would remain at the Coffee County jail and that the plaintiffs would be reported to ICE. Shortly after this conversation, defendant Freeman contacted ICE to report the plaintiffs as suspected undocumented immigrants. On October 24, agents from ICE arrived at the Coffee County jail, and, at the behest of the County Defendants, transported the plaintiffs to a detention center in Nashville, Tennessee, where the plaintiffs, very fearful of what would happen to them and their families, were interrogated for several hours before their attorney was able to secure their release.”

Finding the Plaintiffs’ 215 claim of FLSA Retaliation to be a viable one, at this stage in the litigation, the Court explained:

“As noted above, the plaintiffs allege that the County Defendants violated Section 215(a)(3) of the FLSA. In relevant part, that provision states: “it shall be unlawful for any person to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter.” 29 U.S.C. § 215(a) (3). The Sixth Circuit has consistently interpreted an informal complaint to management regarding working conditions to constitute a “filed complaint” under Section 215(a)(3). Moore v. Freeman, 355 F.3d 558, 562 (6th 2004); EEOC v. Romeo Community Schools, 976 F.2d 985, 989 (6th Cir.1992). While there does not appear to be a wealth of law on this subject from the Sixth Circuit, it appears clear that, given the broad language of this provision, entities other than an individual’s employer can violate the FLSA. See e.g. Centeno-Bernuy v. Perry, 302 F.Supp.2d 128, 135 (W.D.N.Y.2003); Meek v. United States, 136 F.2d 679, 679-80 (6th Cir.1943).

In asserting that the plaintiffs’ FLSA claim should be dismissed as to them, the County Defendants argue that the plaintiffs’ Complaint does not establish the prima facie case for retaliation under the FLSA, and, even if it did, the claim could not survive the well-known McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis that is typically applied in employment discrimination and retaliation suits, including claims brought under the FLSA. (Docket No. 46 at 4, citing Williams v. GM., 187 F.3d 553, 568 (6th Cir.1999)).

This is not a proper argument at this stage in the proceedings. In employment discrimination and retaliation suits, the plaintiff is not required, at the pleading stage, to demonstrate a prima facie case or to survive McDonnell Douglas burden shifting. See Swierkiewicz, 534 U.S. at 508; EEOC v. FPM Group, Ltd., 2009 WL 3088808, *6 (E.D.Tenn. Sept.28, 2009). Rather, as discussed above, in order to survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff’s Complaint need only outline a “facially plausible” claim for relief.

The plaintiffs have met that burden here. Again, the language of the FLSA provision at issue is very broad, prohibiting “any person” from “discriminat [ing]” against “any employee,” because that employee has filed a covered workplace complaint. 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). Further, the County Defendants recognize that retaliatory reporting of an employee to immigration authorities could constitute “discrimination” under this provision. (Docket No. 46 at 6; see also Singh v. Jutla, 214 F.Supp.2d 1056, 1062 (N.D.Cal.2002) (denying motion to dismiss FLSA retaliation claims where allegations centered on an employer’s reporting of the employee to immigration authorities in retaliation for FLSA protected conduct); Dunlop v. Carriage Carpet Co., 548 F.2d 139, 147 (6th Cir.1977) (equating FLSA discrimination to “black listing” and other actions that prevent an employee from gaining future employment.)

Providing significant factual support, the plaintiffs have alleged that the County Defendants, working in concert with the Durrent Defendants, arrested the plaintiffs and then reported the plaintiffs to ICE because of the plaintiffs’ complaints about pay. While the County Defendants claim that the plaintiffs have only alleged a racial or ethnic animus as motivation for the defendants’ conduct here, that is simply not the case. (Docket No. 46 at 6.) The Complaint contains numerous allegations, backed by factual support, that the County Defendants reported the plaintiffs to ICE, at least in part, because the plaintiffs had made a complaint about pay.

The plaintiffs allege that, shortly after the officers arrived at the break room, they were advised that this was a dispute about pay. Then, “Ramirez and/or Girts supplied Defendants Jones, Partin, and Barker with paperwork to assist the Coffee County Defendants in reporting Plaintiffs to ICE.” (Docket No. 1 at 15.) There is no indication from the Complaint that Jones, Partin and Barker attempted to mediate or resolve the labor dispute; rather, it is clear from the Complaint that, throughout the entire process, the County Defendants simply imposed the will of the Durrett Defendants, which was to permanently remove the plaintiffs from the premises (and, perhaps, the country) because the plaintiffs had complained about pay. Indeed, the Complaint alleges that, after the charges were dropped, defendant Graves “consult[ed] with the Durrett Defendants and with full awareness that he was unlawfully intervening in a labor dispute, defendant Graves instructed defendant Freeman to call ICE to report Plaintiffs as suspected undocumented immigrants. Defendant Freeman did so on or about October 22 or October 23, 2007.” (Id. at 16.)

Clearly, accepting the plaintiffs’ allegations as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs’ favor, the plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that the County Defendants violated the FLSA. The plaintiffs allege, with specific factual support, that, in response to the plaintiffs’ complaint about pay, the County Defendants not only had the plaintiffs arrested but worked in concert with the Durrett Defendants to have the plaintiffs reported to ICE. As to this claim, the County Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, which is premised on the notion that the FLSA claim lacks factual support, will be denied.

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E.D.Ark: Punitive Damage Awards Permissible For FLSA Retaliation Claims

Wolfe v. Clear Title, LLC

This case was before the Court on Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.  In resolving the Motion in favor of the Plaintiff, the Court also held that punitive damages are permissible to a Plaintiff in an FLSA retaliation case brought pursuant to 29 U.S.C. 215(a), after acknowledging a split of authority on the issue between Circuit courts and trial level courts within the Eighth Circuit as well.

“The prohibition on retaliation is stated in 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), which makes it unlawful to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because the employee has filed a complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted a proceeding under the FLSA. The majority of circuits have held that this provision protects an employee who makes an internal complaint to the employer. Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. ., 570 F.3d 834, 838 (7th Cir.2009). The Eighth Circuit has interpreted the statute to prohibit discrimination against an employee who asserts or threatens to assert FLSA rights. Brennan v. Maxey’s Yamaha, Inc., 513 F.2d 179, 183 (8th Cir.1975). That interpretation has been criticized as contrary to the plain language of subsection 215(a)(3). See Kasten, 570 F.3d at 840 (holding that the phrase “file any complaint” requires a plaintiff employee to submit some sort of writing). Needless to say, the holding of the Eighth Circuit in Brennan v. Maxey’s Yamaha, Inc., is binding on this Court. Here, the conduct of which Wolfe complains falls within the prohibition of subsection 215(a)(3) as broadly interpreted by the Eighth Circuit.

The courts are divided on the issue of whether the FLSA provides for punitive damages for employees who are subject to retaliation for claiming their rights under that statutory scheme. The Seventh Circuit has held that punitive damages are available in FLSA retaliation cases. Travis v. Gary Community Mental Health Ctr., 921 F.2d 108, 112 (7th Cir.1990). The only other circuit to address the issue thus far is the Eleventh Circuit, which held that punitive damages are not available in FLSA retaliation cases. Snapp v. Unlimited Concepts, Inc., 208 F.3d 928 (11th Cir.2000), cert. denied, 532 U.S. 975, 121 S.Ct. 1609, 149 L.Ed.2d 474 (2001).FN1 The only district courts in the Eighth Circuit to address the issue are the Eastern and Western Districts of Missouri, and they, too, have reached opposite conclusions. The Eastern District of Missouri has followed the Eleventh Circuit in two cases. Huang v. Gateway Hotel Holdings, 520 F.Supp.2d 1137, 1143 (E.D.Mo.2007); Tucker v. Monsanto Co., 2007 WL 1686957 (E.D.Mo. June 8, 2007). Even before the Eleventh Circuit decided Snapp, the Eastern District of Missouri had held, without discussion, that the FLSA does not provide for punitive damages in retaliation cases. Waldermeyer v. ITT Consumer Fin. Corp., 782 F.Supp. 86, 88 (E.D.Mo.1991). On the other hand, the Western District of Missouri followed the Seventh Circuit in one case decided before Snapp, O’Brien v. Dekalb-Clinton Counties Ambulance Dist., 1996 WL 565817, at *6 (W.D.Mo. June 24, 1996) (“In the absence of conflicting interpretation of the amended section 16(b) by another circuit, the court is persuaded to follow the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning and hold that compensatory and punitive damages are available for violation of the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision.”). See also Johnston v. Davis Security, Inc., 217 F.Supp.2d 1224, 1230-31 (D.Utah 2002) (holding that punitive damages are not recoverable under subsection 216(b)); Lanza v. Sugarland Run Homeowners Ass’n, Inc., 97 F.Supp.2d 737, 739-42 (E.D.Va.2000) (same). But see Marrow v. Allstate Sec. & Investigative Services, 167 F.Supp.2d 838, 842-46 (E.D.Pa.2001) (holding that punitive damages are recoverable in a claim for retaliation under the FLSA).

The remedies for violating the FLSA are set out in 29 U.S.C. § 216. Subsection 216(a) provides:

Any person who willfully violates any of the provisions of section 215 of this title shall upon conviction thereof be subject to a fine of not more than $10,000, or to imprisonment for not more than six months, or both. No person shall be imprisoned under this subsection except for an offense committed after the conviction of such person for a prior offense under this subsection.

Subsection 216(b) provides, in pertinent part:

Any employer who violates the provisions of section 215(a)(3) of this title 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.

In Travis, the Seventh Circuit held that this provision authorizes legal relief, “a term commonly understood to include compensatory and punitive damages.” Travis, 921 F.2d at 111. Otherwise, the analysis in Travis was fairly cursory.

In Snapp, the Eleventh Circuit engaged in a lengthy, detailed analysis of the statutory scheme and arrived at a conclusion opposite from that reached in Travis. The court held in Snapp that the term “legal relief” ordinarily would include punitive damages, but interpreting the statute in the light of the principle of ejusdem generis, the court said that the term “legal relief” in subsection 216(b) should be construed to include only compensatory relief, not punitive damages, because the specific items listed in that subsection as “legal or equitable relief” were all designed to make plaintiffs whole.   Snapp, 208 F.3d at 934. The court also said that the statute was structured so that punitive sanctions were covered in subsection 216(a), while subsection 216(b) provided remedies for making aggrieved employees whole. Id. at 935.

The most thorough critique of the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning in Snapp appears to be the critique of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Marrow. There, the court said that application of the maxim of ejusdem generis to subsection 216(b) was inappropriate because the subsection prefaces its list of various forms of relief with the phrase “including without limitation.Marrow, 167 F.Supp.2d at 844 (emphasis by the Marrow court). “The most sensible reading of that phrase leads to the conclusion that by listing several potential forms of relief, Congress did not mean to exclude others.” Id. Moreover, Marrow reasoned, the purpose of subsection 215(a)(3) is not purely compensatory but is intended to deter employers from engaging in retaliation, so that limiting subsection 216(b) to remedies designed to make the plaintiff whole would not fully implement the intent of Congress. Id. The court in Marrow also found unpersuasive the argument that because Congress provided criminal sanctions in subsection 216(a) it could not have meant to include punitive damages in subsection 216(b). Id.

Although the issue is obviously not free from doubt, the undersigned is persuaded by the reasoning Marrow. Subsection 216(b) was drafted broadly to authorize “such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3) of this title, including without limitation….” As Snapp noted:

“Legal relief” is certainly a broad formulation. It would have almost no boundary were it not for the commonly understood decision between the “legal” and “equitable” powers of a court. Where such an expansive term is used, we look for clues within the statute to help us understand the exact nature of the “legal relief” that Congress intended; and we are not disappointed when we look to section 216(b).Snapp, 208 F.3d at 934. The only limitation on the term “legal relief” stated in subsection 216(b) is that it be “appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3)….” The ordinary meaning of “legal relief” as including punitive damages is consistent with that limitation because punitive damages may be appropriate in some cases to effectuate the purposes of subsection 215(a)(3). It is contrary to the legislative intent, as expressed in this broadly worded provision, to exclude punitive damages from the relief authorized by subsection 216(b). The maxim of ejusdem generis is an aid to ascertaining legislative intent and should not be employed to defeat legislative intent, to make general words meaningless, or to reach a conclusion inconsistent with other rules of construction. Donovan v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., 666 F.2d 315, 326 (8th Cir.1981); United States v. Clark, 646 F.2d 1259, 1265 (8th Cir.1981).

Nor is the undersigned persuaded by the argument in Snapp that punitive sanctions are covered in subsection 216(a), while subsection 216(b) is designed to make plaintiffs whole. In Snapp, the court said, “Congress has already covered punitive damages in section 216(a); and there is simply no reason to carry the punitive element over from section 216(a) to section 216(b), a provision intended to compensate not punish.” Snapp, 208 F.3d at 935. Section 216 has five subsections: subsection 216(a) provides for criminal sanctions; subsection 216(b) provides for civil actions by aggrieved employees; subsection 216(c) provides for civil actions by the Secretary of Labor to recover unpaid minimum wages or overtime compensation on behalf of employees to which those wages are owed; subsection 216(d) states certain narrow exceptions to “liability or punishment” under the FLSA; and subsection 216(e) authorizes civil penalties for child labor violations. Section 216 is not structured so as to have a punishment section and a compensation section; instead, the structure includes a section providing for criminal prosecution by the government prosecuting attorneys, a section providing for civil actions by aggrieved employees, a section providing for civil actions by the Secretary of Labor to recover minimum wages and overtime on behalf of employees, and a section providing for civil penalties for child labor violations. The fact that in subsection 216(a) Congress provided criminal sanctions for willful violations of section 215 supports rather than undercuts the notion that the remedies available under subsection 216(b) include punitive damages, for it shows that Congress regarded willful violations as serious enough to warrant punishment and as a form of misconduct that stands in need of deterrence-which is to say that Congress determined that in some cases punishment would be “appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3).” Moreover, that subsection 216(e) provides for penalties shows that subsection 216(a) was not intended as an exhaustive statement of the punishment available for violations of the FLSA.

In summary, subsection 216(b) was intended to authorize civil actions by aggrieved employees in which the employees could recover any form of legal or equitable relief that might be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of subsection 215(a)(3). In some cases, punitive damages might be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of that subsection. Therefore, punitive damages may in the proper case be recoverable under subsection 216(b).”

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