Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which establishes requirements for minimum wages and overtime pay, the statute of limitations is generally two (2) years. This means employees can recover unpaid overtime owed to them for the two (2) years preceding the lawsuit. But if an employer willfully violates the FLSA, the limitations period increases, allowing employees to recover an additional third year of damages.
Souryavong v. Lackawanna County
The Third Circuit’s recent decision in Souryavong v. Lackawanna County clarified this standard. To prove a willful FLSA violation, the Court noted that an employee must demonstrate that the employer actually knew of the specific FLSA requirement at issue at the time of the violation and intentionally did not comply with that requirement. Simply being aware of the FLSA is not enough to prove a willful violation. For instance, in Souryavong, the County failed to aggregate hours worked by part-time employees who worked multiple jobs for the county, which caused them to work more than 40 hours per week. Because the employees were non-exempt and worked in excess of 40 hours per week, they were entitled to overtime pay. It was undisputed that the County violated the FLSA and was thus liable for unpaid overtime dating back two years from the date the lawsuit was filed. However, the parties disputed whether the County’s violation was willful, which would have entitled the employees to a third year of damages.
The Court ultimately held that while the evidence put forth by the plaintiff showed that the County was only generally aware of FLSA provisions and did not establish that the employer was aware of the specific overtime pay problem that was at issue in the case. The Court stated, “A plaintiff must put forward at least some evidence of the employer’s awareness of a violation of the FLSA overtime mandate… A lack of evidence going to good faith is not the same as evidence in support of intentionality.” Thus, the Court awarded the plaintiff two (2) years worth of damages instead of three (3).
While the Third Circuit outlined what a tough standard this is for an employee to prove, it is certainly not impossible. Employees should keep in mind any evidence or witnesses that might corroborate an argument that the employer knew of the FLSA law and that its practices violated that law, and continued its practices the same despite that knowledge.
Importantly, even if this evidence cannot be put forth, any violation of the FLSA—regardless of willfulness—still imposes serious potential liability for employers, as employees can recover up to two (2) years of unpaid wages, along with attorneys’ fees paid by the employer, for a violation of the FLSA.