Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Huge damages award is upheld in wage and hour claim

Wage and hour claims brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the New York Labor Law are quite common in New York City. These claims usually allege the plaintiff was denied overtime or even portions of his regular paycheck. Cases reaching the Second Circuit often do not involve a lot of money, especially when it's a single-plaintiff claim. This case is not one of them. In this case, the plaintiff won more than $800,000 because the jury determined he was denied overtime over the course of five years.

The case is Elghourab v. Vista JFK, a summary order issued on June 30. Plaintiff worked as a chef for the defendant, a hotel near Idlewild Airport in Queens. That huge jury award was actually more than $400,000 in lost wages, which is doubled when the jury finds the employer willfully denied the plaintiff his overtime. Plus he got almost $200,000 in pre-judgment interest. Hence the appeal. Defendants don't like paying out damages awards like this.

The main issue on appeal is that defendant claims plaintiff was not even entitled to overtime because he fell under the "executive exception" to the FLSA. The executive exception is what it sounds like: as defined under the statute, executives are exempt while rank-and-file employees are not exempt and can recover overtime pay. The problem for the employer is that the jury decides whether the defendant falls within the exemption. We call this a mixed question of fact and law.

The Court of Appeals (Winter, Calabresi and Chin) does not outline the relevant factors for this exemption, but it does say the jury was able to weigh the evidence in light of these factors and found in plaintiff's favor. That's enough for the Court of Appeals, which cannot second-guess how the jury sees the evidence unless the jury totally blows it and something absolutely must be done to correct the injustice. This was not one of those cases.

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