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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.
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.”