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Ekeh v. Montgomery County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 28, 2016

OBIOMA EKEH, Plaintiff,
v.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, MARYLAND Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JILLYN K. SCHULZE United States Magistrate Judge.

         Presently pending and ready for resolution are Plaintiff Obioma Ekeh's motion to amend judgment (ECF No. 87) and his motion for attorney's fees (ECF No. 88). The issues have been fully briefed and no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, the motion to amend will be denied and the motion for attorney's fees will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Motion to Amend.

         A. Background.

         Plaintiff brought this action against Defendant Montgomery County (the County), claiming a violation of the overtime pay provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(2), and seeking unpaid overtime wages, liquidated damages, and attorney's fees and costs. ECF No. 7-4 at 1, 4-5. A jury trial was held on March 16-18, 2016. The jury found for Plaintiff as to unpaid overtime during 2010 and 2012, and for Defendant as to unpaid overtime during 2011. The jury also found that Defendant's supervisors knew or reasonably should have known that Plaintiff was working the overtime hours in 2010 and 2012 for which he was not compensated. ECF No. 81. The jury awarded Plaintiff a total of 192 hours. Id. The court computed, and the parties do not dispute, that this totals $7, 344.00. On March 22, 2016, the court entered judgment in favor of Plaintiff in the amount of $7, 344.00. ECF No. 86.

         Plaintiff asks the court to amend the judgment to award liquidated damages in an amount equal to the unpaid overtime. Liquidated damages, while discretionary with the trial judge, are the norm and the burden is on the Defendant to prove that its action was in objective good faith and that it had "reasonable grounds for believing that [its] act or omission was not a violation of FLSA." Mayhew v. Wells, 125 F.3d 216, 220 (4th Cir. 1997).

         B. Pertinent facts.

         This decision is based on the following facts adduced at trial. To the extent that these facts are based on the testimony of witnesses, they were not disputed except as otherwise indicated.

         Plaintiff worked as a supply technician for the Defendant's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. On a typical workday, Plaintiff made two trips between Boyds, Maryland and Rockville, Maryland, transporting inmates' laundry, property, mail, medical records and other items. From September 2000 to June 2010, Plaintiff frequently worked more than eight hours per day to complete his job assignments and Plaintiff's supervisor routinely allowed Plaintiff to receive overtime pay.

         Deputy Warden Christine Johnson became Plaintiff's supervisor in 2010. In September 2010, after Plaintiff's repeated contentions that he was unable to complete his workday during his regular shift, Ms. Johnson rode with him for a day. She testified that he completed his tasks without the need for overtime. Plaintiff, in contrast, testified that he did not complete his tasks the day that Ms. Johnson rode with him, but he did not dispute that she instructed him to go home at the end of his regular shift. Other employees who substituted for Plaintiff completed his tasks during the eight-hour time frame.

         Defendant's overtime policies, which are contained in the County's agreement with its employees' union (ECF No. 89-4) and the County's personnel regulations (ECF No. 89-5), require advance authorization of overtime. Ms. Johnson informed Plaintiff of this policy, gave him her home, work, and mobile phone numbers, instructed him to call her when a situation arose that would require him to work overtime, and advised him that she would not approve overtime unless he obtained her prior authorization. On one occasion, she specifically ordered Plaintiff to leave work at 7:30 p.m., but he called her at 10:00 p.m. and told her that he was still working. Captain Gail David, who substituted for Ms. Johnson during an illness, told Plaintiff that overtime was not authorized for his position and had to be approved in advance. Captain David also told Plaintiff that he should prioritize his work if he was unable to perform all tasks during his regular shift. A union representative also told Plaintiff that he should go home at the end of his shift. Plaintiff did not protest Ms. Johnson's denials of overtime to her supervisor, Warden Robert Green.

         At first, Plaintiff reported his overtime to Ms. Johnson by email after the fact, and in the official County timekeeping system. However, Ms. Johnson disapproved it and repeatedly told Plaintiff that he could complete his duties during his regular shift, that he worked too slowly, and that she would not approve overtime except in advance and only for special circumstances. Plaintiff continued to work overtime. He knew that overtime could only be reported in the County's official timekeeping system and that County policy prohibited him from working overtime without permission. Despite this, he began to document his overtime hours by time-stamping the Inmate Property Transfer Sheets, which were documents used to track the location of inmate property. Plaintiff left the Inmate Property Transfer Sheets with the supervisor of property records at the end of his workday. These documents were not designed to record an employee's time, had not previously been used for that purpose, and Plaintiff did not tell Ms. Johnson that he was using them to document his overtime. Ms. Johnson at times reviewed the Inmate Property Transfer Sheets, but she testified that they are not normally time stamped and Ms. Johnson did not attend to the time stamps.

         C. Discussion.

         As noted, the question whether Defendant acted with objective good faith and had reasonable grounds to believe that it was complying with the requirements of the FLSA is committed to the trial court's discretion. Mayhew, 125 F.3d at 220. Good faith "requires that the employer first take active steps to ascertain the dictates of the FLSA and then move to comply with them." Lockwood v. Prince George's County, 217 F.3d 839, 2000 WL 864220, at *6 (4th Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). The existence of a policy prohibiting overtime is not sufficient to avoid liquidated damages where the employer makes no effort to enforce the policy. Carter v. City of Charleston, South Carolina,995 F.Supp. 620, 622 (D. S.C. 1997). However, liquidated damages may be denied where the court determines that the failure was "in good faith and predicated upon such reasonable grounds that it would be unfair to impose upon [the employer] more than a compensatory verdict." Mayhew, 125 F.3d at 220. A finding that the ...


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