Georgia Bodyguard’s $65K Damages Award in Unpaid Overtime Case Withstands Appeal

Recent court cases have addressed a steadily wider array of workers — from exotic dancers to NFL cheerleaders to home health workers to, most recently, a hip-hop music producer’s bodyguard — and whether those workers’ employment situations qualify them for the minimum wage and overtime protection of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent ruling in the bodyguard’s case upheld a lower court ruling in his favor, concluding that the guard’s employment situation clearly met the FLSA’s “economic dependence” standard for qualifying as an employee under the statute.

The employer in this case was Garrett Hamler, better known by his stage name of Sean Garrett. Hamler is an extremely successful writer and producer of R&B and hip-hop music, having worked with some of music’s biggest stars, like Britney Spears, Usher, and Beyoncé.

As with many successful music personalities, Hamler maintained a security detail. In 2010, one of Hamler’s bodyguards sued him for violating the FLSA. Everitte Quarles had worked for Hamler for half a decade and claimed that the producer owed him thousands of dollars in unpaid overtime. A jury sided with the bodyguard, awarding him more than $65,000 in liquidated damages, plus attorneys’ fees.

The employer appealed but lost, with the 11th Circuit upholding the trial court’s decision entirely. Part of the problems the employer faced on appeal related back to steps taken, or not taken, in bringing the appeal. The employer desired to attack on appeal the trial court’s determination that the bodyguard was an employee under the FLSA, the lower court’s award of liquidated damages, and the award of attorneys’ fees.

When you seek to appeal an aspect of a trial court decision, there is a specific way you must go about it procedurally. To appeal a ruling, you have a file a “Notice of Appeal” with the appropriate appeals court, and you must state exactly which parts of the lower court’s decision you want to challenge in your appeal.

Hamler’s trial took place in the federal court in Atlanta, so the 11th Circuit was the proper appeals court. However, the employer’s notice of appeal only stated that he contested the trial court’s July 2015 order awarding liquidated damages. The employment status decision and the decision awarding attorneys’ fees were accomplished in different orders on different dates. By wording the appeal in the way he did, the employer blocked himself from arguing about employment status and attorneys’ fees in the appeals court.

When you fail to give proper notice that you want to appeal a specific part of a lower court proceeding, the appeals court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to even consider that argument. In this case, the 11th Circuit indicated that the employer likely would have lost these arguments anyway. To qualify as an employee under the FLSA, an employee must show that the nature of his relationship with the employer is one of “economic dependence.” When “considering economic dependence, the court focuses on whether an individual is in business for himself or is dependent upon finding employment in the business of others,” the court further explained. In this case, Quarles had ample evidence that he was dependent on Hamler and was not in business for himself. Among other things, he had proof that Hamler prohibited him from guarding anyone else and required Quarles to guard him at all times that the producer was traveling or working.

The attorneys’ fees argument also would have been doomed. Trial courts have wide discretion in this area, and the court in Quarles’ case actually reduced the amount of attorneys’ fees from the amount sought by 30 percent.

As for the one issue properly before the court, liquidated damages, the award was permissible. An employer can potentially escape paying liquidated damages for FLSA violations if his error was made in good faith. In this situation, Hamler argued that he relied on the advice of accountants in paying Quarles, and thus he acted in good faith and shouldn’t have been ordered to pay liquidated damages. He still lost, though, since the trial court found his testimony on the topic less than credible. Trial courts have wide discretion in making these types of believability decisions, so the trial court was free to disbelieve the producer and find that he did not act in good faith.

Whether you are an employer of thousands or just a few people, it is important to be sure you are fully in compliance with the FLSA. Knowledgeable employment attorneys can assist employers and employees alike in determining if they (or their employers) are compliant with the law. For reliable advice about minimum wage, overtime, and other FLSA issues, you can count on the capable Georgia overtime law attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have many years of advising and representing both employers and employees on this and many other employment law matters.

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

More blog posts:

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

Georgia Exotic Dancer Launches New FLSA Lawsuit Against Athens Club, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Jan. 30, 2016

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