SANTIAGO PINEDA, and all others similarly situated under 29 U.S.C. 216(B); MARIA PENA, Plaintiffs - Appellants Cross-Appellees
JTCH APARTMENTS, L.L.C.; SIMONA VIZIREANU, Defendants-Appellees Cross-Appellants
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Texas
JONES, BARKSDALE, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.
COSTA, Circuit Judge:
appeal raises two questions about the retaliation provision
of the Fair Labor Standards Act: Does the Act allow a
retaliation victim to recover damages for emotional distress?
Does the Act protect a nonemployee spouse from employer
backlash? We conclude that the FLSA allows only employees to
bring suit, but that an employee may recover for emotional
injury resulting from retaliation.
Pineda and Maria Pena, a married couple, lived in an
apartment owned by JTCH Apartments, L.L.C. and leased to
Pena. Pineda did maintenance work in and around the apartment
complex. As part of Pineda's compensation for this work,
JTCH discounted Pena's rent.
filed this lawsuit initially just seeking unpaid overtime
under the FLSA. He sued JTCH and its owner and manager,
Simona Vizireanu. Three days after Pineda served JTCH with
the summons, he and his wife received a notice to vacate
their apartment for nonpayment of rent. The amount JTCH
demanded equaled the rent reductions Pena had received over
the period of Pineda's employment. In response to the
notice, the couple left the apartment.
then joined Pineda's suit, and the amended complaint
included retaliation claims based on the back rent demanded
after the filing of the lawsuit. See 29 U.S.C.
§ 215(a)(3). During the jury trial that followed,
Defendants moved successfully for judgment as a matter of law
on Pena's retaliation claim, arguing that a nonemployee
like Pena is outside the protections of the FLSA. At the
charge conference, Pineda unsuccessfully sought an
instruction on emotional distress damages for his retaliation
jury found for Pineda on both his overtime wage claim and his
retaliation claim. It awarded him $1, 426.50 on the former
and $3, 775.50 on the latter. In post-trial rulings, the
district court awarded Pena liquidated damages of $1, 426.50
and awarded his counsel $76, 732.88 in attorney's fees,
which was a 25% reduction from the amount requested. The
court ordered the reduction primarily because the fee request
was "grossly disproportionate to the modest
and Pena appeal. Pineda argues that the court should have
instructed the jury on damages for emotional harm. Pena
argues that she is within the zone of interests protected by
the FLSA retaliation provision and thus should have also been
able to seek such damages from the jury.
also appeal. Their brief seeks to undo the jury's verdict
on a number of grounds, among them that Pineda was an
independent contractor and failed to prove that JTCH was an
enterprise engaged in commerce. Their notice of appeal
raising those issues was deemed untimely, however, by a
motions panel of this court. The only issue they timely
raised relates to the fee award.
begin by considering whether the district court should have
asked the jury whether it believed Pineda had proven damages
for emotional distress. As the availability of such damages
under the FLSA is a question of statutory interpretation, our
review is de novo. GE Capital Commercial, Inc. v.
Worthington Nat. Bank, 754 F.3d 297, 302 (5th Cir. 2014)
("[W]hen 'a jury instruction hinges on a question of
statutory construction, this ...