Monday, May 18, 2020

It's tough to upset the trial court's factual findings on appeal

This case involves a plaintiff who claimed his employer failed to pay him minimum wages and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act. All sides appeal. Plaintiffs argue the district court (which held a bench trial) did not award enough money, and defendants claim the trial court made unrelated errors. The Court of Appeals rejects both appeals, and the verdict stands.

The case is Li v. Chinatown Take-Out, Inc., a summary order issued on May 7. First things first: the Court of Appeals (Calabresi, Wesley and Sullivan) restates the established rule that, even in bench trials, factual findings are rejected on appeal only if the appellate court deems them "clearly erroneous," which is the Mount Everest of appellate review standards.

While plaintiffs claim the district court got it wrong in holding that they did not work certain hours for which they sought damages for non-payment of wages, the trial court was entitled to credit Defendants' testimony over Plaintiffs' recollection and determine that as to these issues, "Plaintiffs' testimony did not sufficiently show the amount and extent of their claimed work." Similarly, Defendants did not bother with nuance in arguing that the plaintiffs' testimony was so "totally unbelievable . . .  that it was unreasonable for the court to accept any of their testimony," including their claim that defendants did not pay them. This argument will not work in the Court of Appeals. Claiming that someone's testimony was too unbelievable to support a judgment is over the top, and since that argument includes the word "believable," we are getting into credibility territory which is for the trial court and the trial court alone. The trial court can believe whatever witnesses it wants, and it can even credit an admitted perjurer over a busload of nuns. When it comes to credibility, the trial court is where the action is.

As for the damages, similar analysis. Defendants claim that the trial court miscalculated them. Under federal and state labor laws, the plaintiffs get 1.5 times the amount of pay for overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week. Defendants argue that the court should have divided the weekly wage by 48, the number of hours it found the plaintiffs worked. But the Court of Appeals says that defendants did not offer credible evidence of an agreement or understanding that the plaintiffs' wages were intended to compensate more than 40 hours per week.

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