Judging by the outcome of this case, relying on the federal government for guidance in your pay practices could turn out to be very expensive.
In fact, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit serves as a stern warning to employers: Using a government website, like the DOL’s elaws Advisors site, is no substitute for consulting with an attorney or a government official.
Bottom line: Saying you relied on the such a website to guide your employment decisions won’t shield you from damages.
The court recently ruled that using the DOL’s elaws site wasn’t enough to reduce the “willful” penalties a jury levied upon Dallas-based plumber HSC-Hopson Services Co. for failing to pay one of its employees for all of the time he spent at work.
Owner: I acted in good faith
Plumber Donald Miles sued his employer, HSC-Hopson, claiming the company illegally failed to pay him for time he spent at work before and after scheduled appointments with customers.
Specifically, Miles’ wage-and-hour lawsuit said he was forced to arrive 30 minutes before his shifts and wasn’t paid for that time. It also said he wasn’t paid for the time spent driving his truck back to the shop and locking up following his last appointment every workday.
In court, company owner Dannis Hopson admitted to those pay practices, but he testified went to the DOL’s elaws Advisors website and determined on his own that his conduct complied with the FLSA.
As you could probably guess, he was wrong. A jury ruled in favor of Miles and awarded him $16,132.50 in lost wages.
But that wasn’t all. It also said HSC-Hopson must pay Miles and equal amount in damages for its “willful” violation of the FLSA.
An FLSA violation is deemed to be willful “if the employer either knew or showed reckless disregard for … whether its conduct was prohibited by the statue,” said the Fifth Circuit court.
Hopson filed an appeal trying to get the willful damages removed. He claimed they weren’t warranted because “he acted in good faith” by consulting the DOL’s website to determine if his pay practices were legal.
But the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to reduce the damages.
Here’s what it had to say about the matter:
Hopson testified that he did not consult an attorney or the Department of Labor. Instead, he went to an ‘E-law’ website. There was also testimony that Hopson arbitrarily reduced work time and did not pay for certain time worked. This evidence supports the jury’s verdict that Hopson’s conduct was willful for purposes of an FLSA violation.
End result: Hopson was ordered to pay Miles a total of $32,265.