Three “former” Battalion Chiefs from the Portage, Indiana Fire Department filed a lawsuit in federal court last week claiming the city of Portage failed to provide them overtime pay as required by both the FLSA and Indiana state law. Additionally, the chiefs’ complaint alleges that the city has unlawfully retaliated against them in violation of the FLSA. Specifically, the chiefs claim they were demoted and unjustly disciplined since beginning their legal action against the city.
The rules that govern whether fire departments can properly classify senior fire officers as overtime exempt are long and complex. Additionally, these requirements are fact specific. Battalion chiefs in one city may be properly classified overtime exempt, while the battalion chiefs in a neighboring city are entitled to FLSA overtime. For more on that topic, click here.
However, the rules that govern FLSA retaliation are pretty straightforward. Employers must exercise extreme caution when managing employees that have exercised their rights under the FLSA. The FLSA contains broad and far-reaching anti-retaliation provisions. Section 215(a)(3) of the FLSA contains the following:
It shall be unlawful… to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter…
Generally, plaintiff’s attorneys love to see evidence of retaliation after filing a wage and hour claim. The FLSA’s anti-retaliation provisions do not require the plaintiff (i.e. the employee) prove the underlying FLSA claim in order to prevail on a retaliation claim. For example, an employee can claim that his or her employer misclassified them as an overtime exempt employee. The employer can prove the employee was properly classified as overtime exempt, yet still be liable to the employee for damages associated with retaliation.
Additionally, most often the potential damages in FLSA litigation are limited to back wages and liquidated damages. Damages for retaliation can include pain and suffering, punitive damages, and even pain and suffering and emotional damages for the employee’s family members under certain limited circumstances. Bottom line, employers do not want to face retaliation claims in addition to wage and hour claims. Employers need to carefully weigh any action taken against any employee or group of employees that have exercised their rights under the FLSA.
Here is a copy of the complaint.