Count the Fifth Circuit among the latest to allow emotional distress damages to employees who successfully sue for retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  In a December 19, 2016 opinion, the Fifth Circuit held that the district court should have allowed the jury to receive an instruction on emotional distress damages when it was considering an employee’s FLSA retaliation claim.  In the same opinion, however, the Fifth Circuit did clarify that only employees can bring claims under the FLSA.

The Case

Plaintiffs Santiago Pineda and Maria Pena are a married couple who lived together in an apartment owned by the defendant, JTCH Apartments.  Pena leased the apartment from JTCH.  Pineda performed maintenance work around the complex.  As part of Pineda’s compensation, JTCH discounted Pena’s rent.  After Pineda brought a claim seeking unpaid overtime under the FLSA, JTCH served Pena with a notice to vacate for nonpayment of rent in the exact amount that it had discounted for Pineda’s maintenance work.  Upon receiving the notice, Pineda amended his lawsuit to assert a retaliation claim.  Pena joined the lawsuit to assert her own FLSA retaliation claim.

During trial, the district court awarded JTCH judgment as a matter of law against Pena on the ground that she was not JTCH’s employee and only employees could file suit under the FLSA.  The jury found in Pineda’s favor on his claims, but the district court refused his request that the jury receive an instruction on emotional distress damages for his FLSA claim.  Both Pineda and Pena appealed.

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