Emotional Distress Damages and FLSA Cases in Tennessee

A recent case from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that employees who suffer harm as a result of their employers’ Fair Labor Standards Act violations or acts of retaliation can pursue awards of damages for the emotional distress they suffered. While this standard of allowing emotional distress damages is new in places like Texas, a 2004 Sixth Circuit decision on the topic means that employees in Tennessee have had access to emotional distress damages awards for several years.

The most recent case involved a man who was a maintenance worker at an apartment complex in Texas. He and his wife also lived in an apartment within the complex. The man received compensation for his work in two forms:  pay and a discount rate on his apartment rent. At some point while living and working there, the maintenance worker launched a FLSA case against the complex’s owner and manager over unpaid overtime.

Only three days later, the landlord gave the worker and his wife notice to vacate their apartment. The landlord alleged non-payment of rent, with the amount in dispute exactly equaling the amount of rent discounts the man had received during his term of employment.

The employee added a claim for retaliation to his lawsuit. As part of his FLSA retaliation claim, the man asked for emotional distress damages related to the abrupt and unexpected eviction. The employee received favorable verdicts from the jury on both his FLSA violation and his retaliation claims. The trial court refused to give the jury an instruction on emotional distress damages, and the man received no award regarding those damages.

The Fifth Circuit reversed. The relevant section of the FLSA, 29 USC 216(b), allowed recovery for “not just wages and liquidated damages but also ‘such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate.’” The Fifth Circuit concluded that courts should read this language broadly and should include emotional distress damages in the array of damages types for which an employee can recover in a retaliation case.

As an employer or employee in Tennessee, you may wonder what impact a case from Texas has on you. Directly, it may have little. Indirectly, though, this ruling is a reminder of the options available to FLSA plaintiffs in Tennessee. When the Fifth Circuit decided, in this recent ruling, to clear the way for recovery of emotional distress damages, it followed the footsteps of two other federal appeals courts. One of those was the Sixth Circuit. In that Sixth Circuit case, a male African-American housing code inspector working for a city government in East Tennessee launched a FLSA equal-pay claim, which later came to include a retaliation claim as well.

In 2004, the Sixth Circuit concluded that emotional distress clearly was one of the types of damages that Section 216(b) allowed injured employees to recover. With the Sixth, Seventh, and now Fifth Circuits all agreeing on the subject, the position that emotional distress damages are recoverable is only gaining in momentum.

As an employee who believes that you’ve suffered an FLSA violation, it is important to understand exactly what your options are in terms of recovery. As an employer, it is important to grasp what your risks are and take the proper steps to avoid violations and to avoid actions that could trigger retaliation claims. The hardworking and knowledgeable Tennessee FLSA attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have spent many years helping both employers and employees with their FLSA cases, and we have the skills and resources to advise you about your rights and obligations as well.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Georgia Bodyguard’s $65K Damages Award in Unpaid Overtime Case Withstands Appeal, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Aug. 11, 2016

Federal Government Creates New Overtime Rules to Take Effect Later This Year, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, June 7, 2016

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