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Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, L.L.C.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

December 19, 2016

SANTIAGO PINEDA, and all others similarly situated under 29 U.S.C. 216(B); MARIA PENA, Plaintiffs - Appellants Cross-Appellees
v.
JTCH APARTMENTS, L.L.C.; SIMONA VIZIREANU, Defendants-Appellees Cross-Appellants

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before JONES, BARKSDALE, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.

          GREGG COSTA, Circuit Judge:

         This 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.

         I.

         Santiago 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.

         Pineda 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.

         Pena 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 claim.

         The 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 recovery."

         Pineda 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.

         Defendants 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.

         II.

         A

         We 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 ...


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