Fifth Circuit: Employers Liable for Emotional Distress Damages in FLSA Retaliation Claims


By Michael B. Cohen

Beyond requiring that employers comply with statutory minimum and overtime wage provisions for nonexempt employees, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., renders it unlawful for employers to retaliate against employees for asserting their rights under the law.  Employers are prohibited from “discharg[ing] or in any other manner discriminat[ing] against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to [the FLSA].”  29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).  Retaliation claims under this section generally require the performance of a “protected activity” by an employee, such as filing a complaint, a subsequent “adverse action” by an employer, such as terminating or demoting an employee, and a “causal connection” between the protected activity and the adverse action.  It is well established that employers who violate the anti-retaliation provisions of § 215(a)(3) may be liable for legal and equitable relief under § 216(b), including reinstatement, promotion, lost wages, front pay, liquidated damages, and reasonable attorney’s fees.  But what about other remedies, such as compensatory damages for emotional distress stemming from the retaliatory act(s)?

In a decision reached on December 19, 2016, Pineda v. JTCH Apartments., L.L.C., 843 F.3d 1062 (5th Cir. 2016), the Fifth Circuit joined the Sixth Circuit (Moore v. Freeman, 355 F.3d 558, 563 (6th Cir. 2004)) and Seventh Circuit (Travis v. Gary Cmty. Mental Health Ctr., 921 F.2d 108, 112 (7th Cir. 1990)), in affirmatively holding that § 216(b) permits plaintiffs to recover for emotional injuries arising from successful retaliation claims.[1]  The decision resolved a split among lower courts within the jurisdiction.

In Pineda, the plaintiff, Santiago Pineda, was a maintenance worker in an apartment complex owned by the defendant, JTCH Apartments, L.L.C. (“JTCH”).  As part of Pineda’s compensation, JTCH permitted him and his wife to lease an apartment in the complex at a discounted rate.  Pineda filed a lawsuit seeking unpaid overtime wages under the FLSA.  Three days after Pineda filed the lawsuit, JTCH demanded that he and his wife vacate their apartment for nonpayment of rent.  JTCH claimed that Pineda owed unpaid rent in a sum equal to the amount of the prior rent reductions.  Pineda and his wife left the apartment, and Pineda thereafter amended his complaint, joining Pineda’s wife in the suit, and including retaliation claims under § 215(a)(3).  The jury found for Pineda on both his overtime and retaliation claims.  The Northern District of Texas, however, refused Pineda’s request to instruct the jury on emotional distress damages for his retaliation claims, for which he testified to experiencing marital discord, sleepless nights, and anxiety about where his family would live after leaving the JTCH complex.  Pineda and his wife appealed.

The Fifth Circuit, after citing to precedent from other appellate courts that reviewed the issue either directly or indirectly, looked to the language of the FLSA.  The Court found that the FLSA’s remedy of “legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate” for retaliation claims was “expansive language that should be read to include the compensation for emotional distress that is typically available for intentional torts like retaliatory discharge.”  The Court also distinguished the issue under the FLSA from that of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), since the ADEA exhibits a preference for administrative resolution.[2]  The Fifth Circuit ultimately held that the FLSA’s “broad authorization of ‘legal and equitable relief’ encompasses compensation for emotional injuries suffered by an employee on account of employer retaliation.”  It remanded the question of whether Pineda was entitled to compensation for emotional distress.

While the Fourth Circuit has yet to review the issue of emotional distress damages for § 215(a)(3) retaliation claims, attorneys, employees, and employers within the jurisdiction should take note of the nationwide trend to award such damages.  Additionally, in Randolph v. ADT Sec. Servs., No. DKC 09-1790 (D. Md. June 14, 2012), the only decision within the Fourth Circuit to address this issue, the District of Maryland reached the same conclusion as that reached in Pineda, holding that “[b]ecause ‘full compensation is the evident purpose and paramount policy’ in an FLSA retaliation action . . . a plaintiff who makes a proper showing [may] recover damages for emotional distress.”

Michael B. Cohen is an attorney at The Law Offices of Gilda A. Hernandez, PLLC, where he focuses his practice on litigating complex class action wage and hour disputes pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act and the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act.

[1] In addition to the Sixth and Seventh Circuits, which each directly analyzed the issue, other circuits have upheld jury awards for emotional damages in FLSA retaliation cases (though without the legal question being challenged on appeal), including the First Circuit (Travers v. Flight Servs. & Sys., Inc., 808 F.3d 525, 530, 539–42 (1st Cir. 2015)), Eighth Circuit (Broadus v. O.K. Indus., Inc., 238 F.3d 990, 992 (8th Cir. 2001) (per curiam)), and Ninth Circuit (Lambert v. Ackerley, 180 F.3d 997, 1011 (9th Cir. 1999)).

[2] The Court recently decided a case consistently with Pineda’s ADEA analysis, Vaughan v. Anderson Reg’l Med. Ctr., No. 16-60104 (5th Cir. Feb. 15, 2017), holding that a party “may not invoke the ADEA as a basis for general compensatory damages for pain and suffering . . . .”