Differing definition between standards in FLSA law and civil law

by on April 2, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Did Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit trigger retaliation?

The moment HR director June Juliano heard Shelly Loo’s voice on the phone, she knew it meant trouble.

“Shelly, take a deep breath,” said June. “I can tell you’re upset. Just take a few seconds to calm down and then tell me what’s on your mind.”

Until last month, Shelly worked as a security guard for Montco Systems. That was when she gave her two weeks notice and went to work for another security firm.

“I can’t believe you called my new employer and told them I was suing you!” said Shelly.

“But it’s true,” said June. “You are suing us for overtime violations in FLSA law. It’s a matter of public record and your new employer has a right to know about it.”

Made her look bad

Shelly fumed. “But they don’t believe my side of the story as to why I’m suing Montco for overtime pay under FLSA law. It makes me look so bad in their eyes!”

“You didn’t get fired or disciplined, did you?” asked June.

“No,” Shelly said. “But I feel like I’m walking on egg shells there. When I first arrived at the new job my boss liked me. Now they don’t trust me. Your call to them changed everything.”

June explained she hadn’t intended to cause trouble. She happened to know some people at Shelly’s new company. The subject of employees suing their employers came up and June mentioned Shelly’s case.

“I am sorry it embarrassed you,” she told Shelly. “But let’s keep this in perspective. We never retaliated against you – you quit. And your new employer didn’t retaliate either – you still work there.”

Shelly shook her head. “I can’t sleep at night, plus I’m on tranquilizers now. Someone’s going to pay for my suffering!”

Shelly filed a lawsuit claiming retaliation under Fair Labor Standards Act.

Did she win?

Yes. Shelly won her FLSA retaliation lawsuit. Interestingly, she lost out on a civil claim against her former employer, filed at the same time.

That shows how the FLSA law and its’ definition of “retaliation” may differ from other legal definitions, which can vary from state to state.

Where was the “adverse impact” under FLSA law?

The old employer didn’t deny having called the new employer and sharing information about Shelly. But the old employer claimed the call hadn’t had an adverse impact: Shelly was neither fired, reprimanded, nor demoted.

Shelly argued that merely making the telephone call was in and of itself an adverse action. It didn’t matter that Montco was no longer her employer. Nor did it matter that her new employer didn’t take an adverse action against her. It was still retaliation under FLSA law.

In reaching its decision, the court explained that the prior employer had done something analogous to providing a tainted employment reference. The intent of the call, said the judge, was to humiliate Shelly and to affect her future employment with her new employer.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the former employer had intentionally inflicted emotional distress.

The judge said Montco’s actions weren’t severe enough to cause emotional distress under civil law. But it was severe enough under FLSA law.

Different standards apply for civil and FLSA law. Even though Shelly’s overtime pay lawsuit was public knowledge, her old employer shouldn’t have discussed it with her new employer.

Cite: Johnson v. Davis Security, Inc., U.S. District Court, District of Utah, Central Division, No. 2:01CV825K, 9/9/02. Fictionalized for dramatic effect

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