In its December Vaughn decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that plaintiffs in age discrimination cases may not collect compensatory or punitive damages. The court based its decision on its interpretation of the damages sections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), upon which ADEA’s damages provisions are based. Three days later however, the same court concluded that plaintiffs in FLSA cases can collect compensatory damages. How could the Fifth Circuit reach different outcomes on damages claims interpreting the same law?
In Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, LLC, the plaintiff lived at the apartment complex where he performed maintenance duties. When he sued his employer for failure to pay overtime, the plaintiff alleged that he was evicted in retaliation, resulting in emotional distress. The district court excluded his claim for compensatory damages as outside the scope of the FLSA.
The Fifth Circuit reversed this decision allowing compensatory damages. Although it never mentioned the Vaughn decision, the court distinguished the current case from earlier ones excluding compensatory damage awards under ADEA. The court noted that Congress amended the FLSA in 1977 to add the current anti-retaliation provision. That amendment includes language that the Fifth Circuit interpreted as allowing the award of both compensatory and punitive damages. The ADEA cases reached a different conclusion because that law includes the EEOC’s investigation and conciliation procedures not found under the FLSA. Allowing compensatory damages for age discrimination claims would interfere with this administrative process. While somewhat technical, this reasoning on FLSA claims places the Fifth Circuit in line with other federal appellate circuits that have recognized the ability to collect compensatory and punitive damages in FLSA retaliation claims.