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Reportable Event – Perez v. Mountaire Farms, Inc.

On March 1, 2010, the Public Justice Center (PJC), along with the Maryland Employment Lawyers Association, Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association, Legal Aid Bureau, and Legal Aid Justice Center filed a friend-of-the-court (amicus) brief in Perez v. Mountaire Farms, Inc., No. 09-1917, in the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.  Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Monisha Cherayil drafted the amicus argument.

Approximately 250 employees of Mountaire Farms’ poultry processing plant never received payment for the time they spent each workday “donning” and “doffing” protective equipment so that they could properly perform their job duties.  A federal district court concluded that the non-payment violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and awarded the employees several thousand dollars in back wages.  However, the district court denied the workers liquidated damages after finding, on the basis of a sparse evidentiary record, that the employer’s conduct reflected erroneous but good faith, reasonable efforts to follow the law.  As a result, the workers obtained no compensation for injuries they suffered due to the prolonged depression of their earnings, and Mountaire Farms and other employers faced no penalty for their unlawful labor practices.  Mountaire Farms appealed the finding of liability to the federal circuit court and the employees cross-appealed the denial of liquidated damages.

The Public Justice Center’s amicus brief in support of the employees analyzed the importance of the FLSA’s liquidated damages provision as a tool for compensating low-wage workers for delays in payment and providing employers with an incentive to comply with the law.  Amici first explained how even a temporary failure to pay poor workers the wages they have earned can drive such workers, their families, and their communities deeper into poverty.  Liquidated damages awards help to remedy these difficult-to-quantify, but nonetheless very real, losses.  Moreover, amici argued, low-wage workers face myriad obstacles to asserting their rights and, consequently, employers often evade the FLSA with impunity. By increasing the monetary penalties for illicit conduct, liquidated damages awards compel employers to pay their employees the legally-required amount even when case-by-case enforcement of the law is not as robust as it could be.  Amici concluded that, because liquidated damages play such important compensatory and deterrent functions, courts must demand compelling proof of good faith and reasonableness from employers who seek to avoid such damages.  Consistent with Congressional intent, courts should award liquidated damages to the vast majority of employees who successfully enforce their right to fair payment under the FLSA.

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