Stan Smith, a former Fire Marshal for the City of Sand Springs, Oklahoma Fire Department has agreed to a $247,500 settlement with the city following his 2017 lawsuit over unpaid overtime.
Smith filed a rather common straight-forward FLSA lawsuit in September 2017. Smith alleged that he regularly performed work during his unpaid scheduled lunch hour. The FLSA requires employers pay employees for all hours they are suffered or permitted to work. This includes time spent working during rest and meal periods. If Smith’s claims were proven, he likely would have been eligible to receive at most:
- Several hours of additional pay (likely overtime) each workweek spanning the past 2-3 years,
- An equal amount of liquidated damages,
- And the city would be required to pay Smith’s attorneys’ fees.
This would likely represent the worst-case scenario for the city.
However, this litigation took a strange turn shortly after the suit was filed. Smith was terminated on February 1, 2018 following a four-month internal investigation. An investigation that city officials admitted began as a result of his FLSA lawsuit. In the process of investigating Smith’s claims for unpaid overtime, city officials discovered he had allegedly violated departmental rules and regulations related to secondary part-time employment.
Specifically, the city claimed Smith sent emails related to his secondary part-time employment from the fire department’s computer system. As a result of this discovery the city terminated Smith. In response, Smith’s attorney amended the initial complaint to include a claim of FLSA retaliation.
While the exact amount of Smith’s potential claims for unpaid wages is not disclosed within the complaint of the settlement, Smith and the city agreed to a total payment of $247,500 to settle the suit and move on. This is likely much more than than he would have received for back wages alone.
The FLSA contains broad anti-retaliation provisions. Employers can be found guilty of the FLSA’s retaliation provisions if they “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 Act, or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee.”
In fact, the employee does not need to prove a wage and hour violation in order to succeed in an FLSA retaliation claim. For example, an employee claims that he or she is owed $10,000 in back wages. The employer responds by taking an adverse action against that plaintiff employee. The employee now tacks on a retaliation claim in addition to their wage and hour claim. Six months later a court finds for the employer on the wage and hour claim (the employer paid the employee properly), however as a result of the adverse action taken after the lawsuit was filed, the court finds the employer guilty of retaliation. Retaliation claims can and often include damages for pain and suffering, emotional distress, and even punitive damages.
This cannot be stressed enough… Fire departments must be extremely careful when dealing with employees that have asserted their FLSA rights. A small payroll mistake, or no mistake at all, can end up costing the department significant amounts of money.
Here is more on the story from FirefighterOvertime.org from last July.