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Jackson v. Reliasource, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 28, 2017

ANDRE JACKSON
v.
RELIASOURCE, INC. et al.

          MEMORANDUM

          William M. Nickerson Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff filed this suit on February 8, 2016, alleging violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq., and the Maryland Wage and Hour Law (MWHL), Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. §§ 3-401 et seq. Plaintiff subsequently filed an Amended Complaint that added a claim under the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law (MWPCL). The case was tried by jury in a trial that commenced on April 24, 2017, and lasted for four days. The jury returned a verdict in Plaintiff's favor, awarding him $12, 142.31 in unpaid overtime wages, $12, 142.31 in liquidated damages, and $5, 000.00 in additional damages under the MWPCL.

         Plaintiff has filed a motion seeking the award of $206, 330.00 in attorneys' fees and $4, 328.70 in costs. ECF No. 88. Defendants opposed that motion, and also filed a Motion for New Trial Nisi Remittitur, ECF No. 94, asking the Court reduce the amount of damages that the jury awarded to Plaintiff. Plaintiff opposed that motion and also filed a reply in further support of his motion for fees. In those filings, Plaintiff seeks additional awards of $4, 160.00 in attorneys' fees for time spent responding to Defendants' opposition to the fee petition, and $5, 320.00 for time spent opposing the Motion for New Trial Nisi Remittitur. Both motions are now ripe.

         A. Motion for New Trial Nisi Remittitur

         “Under Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court may order a new trial nisi remittitur if it ‘concludes that a jury award of compensatory damages is excessive.'" Jones v. Southpeak Interactive Corp., 777 F.3d 658, 672 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Sloane v. Equifax Info. Servs., LLC, 510 F.3d 495, 502 (4th Cir. 207)). "Indeed, if a court finds that a jury award is excessive, it is the court's duty to require a remittitur or order a new trial." Atlas Food Sys. & Servs, Inc. v. Crane Nat'l Vendors, Inc., 99 F.3d 587, 593 (4th Cir. 1996). A new trial must be granted if "(1) the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, or (2) is based upon evidence which is false, or (3) will result in a miscarriage of justice, even though there may be substantial evidence which would prevent the direction of a verdict." Knussman v. Maryland, 272 F.3d 625, 639 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal quotations omitted). The determination as to whether damages are excessive is a question of law, and is committed to the discretion of the trial court. Konkel v. Bob Evans Farms, Inc., 165 F.3d 275, 280 (4th Cir. 1999).

         Defendants proffer two reasons why the jury award should be reduced. First, they argue that jury's verdict is excessive because the award of overtime wages is greater than the amount of overtime wages sought by Plaintiff. In his answer to one of Defendants' interrogatories, Plaintiff indicated that he worked 918.4 overtime hours in the relevant time period, which would entitle him to $9, 626.87 in unpaid wages under the FLSA. ECF No. 99-1. Defendants introduced that interrogatory answer into evidence at the end of their case, 4/25/17 Tr. at 50, and Defendants' counsel specifically referenced that answer in his closing argument. 4/26/17 Tr. at 18. In his testimony at trial, Plaintiff stated that he worked approximately 918 hours of unpaid overtime, 4/24/17 Tr. at 71-72, and his counsel also indicated in his rebuttal argument that “Plaintiff is asking for $9, 626.87 for unpaid overtime.” 4/26/17 Tr. at 39-40. The jury, however, concluded that Plaintiff was entitled to $12, 142.31 in unpaid overtime wages.

         While the argument of counsel is not evidence, Plaintiff's interrogatory answer was evidence that was presented to the jury. In addition, Plaintiff own testimony limited the number of overtime hours on which the FLSA damages could be based and Plaintiff's salary, the other component of the FLSA damages calculation, was also in evidence. Thus, there was no evidence from which the jury could arrive at an award greater than the award calculated by Plaintiff, $9, 626.87.[1] Accordingly, the award for unpaid overtime must be reduced to $9, 626.87, as must the matching liquidated damages award.

         Defendants also argue that the award is excessive because the jury improperly awarded liquidated damages under both the FLSA and the MWPCL. This Court has held that “Plaintiffs are entitled to recover liquidated damages under the FLSA or treble damages under the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law, but not both.” Quiroz v. Wilhelm Commercial Builders, Inc., No. WGC-10-2016, 2011 WL 5826677, at *3 (D. Md. Nov. 17, 2011). Furthermore, and of more significance in this case, this Court has consistently held that treble damages under the MWPCA can only be awarded when the plaintiff offers evidence of consequential damages because of the underpayment of wages “such as late charges or evictions, that can occur when employees who are not properly paid are unable to meet their financial obligations.” Clancey v. Skyline Grill, LLC, Civ. No. ELH-12-1598, 2012 WL 5409733, at *8 (D. Md. Nov. 5, 2012); see also Villatoro v. CTS & Associates, Inc., Civ. No. DKC 14-1978, 2016 WL 2348003, at *3 (D. Md. May 4, 2016) (noting that “it has become customary in this district to award double damages under the FLSA, but not treble damages under the MWPCL” when the plaintiff does not offer evidence of consequential damages, even where the defendant offers no evidence of a bona fide dispute).

         In opposing the motion, Plaintiff makes no response to this consequential damages argument and he makes no argument, nor could he, that he presented evidence of any consequential damages. Instead, he attempts to distinguish the cases cited by Defendants on the ground that they were decided on motions for default judgment. While it is true that these decisions were issued on default judgment motions, that does not change the legal analysis of what must be established to support treble damages under the MWPCL. In the absence of any evidence of consequential damages, Plaintiff's liquidated damages are limited to those awarded under the FLSA.

         The Court will grant Defendants' Motion for New Trial Nisi Remittitur. Plaintiff shall have 21 days from this date to notify the Court that this remittitur is accepted. If the Court is not informed of that acceptance within that time period, a new trial on damages will be granted.

         B. Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs

         Under § 216(b) of the FLSA, the award of attorney's fees and costs to the prevailing plaintiff is mandatory. 29 U.S.C § 216(b). Thus, Plaintiffs are entitled to some award of fees. “The amount of the attorney's fees, however, is within the sound discretion of the trial court.” Burnley v. Short, 730 F.2d 136, 141 (4th Cir. 1984).

         In the exercise of that discretion, courts have found that “[t]he most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). This approach is commonly known as the “lodestar” method. Grissom v. The Mills Corp., 549 F.3d 313, 320 (4th Cir. 2008). In deciding what constitutes a “reasonable” number of hours and a “reasonable” rate under this method, courts look to a number of factors, including:

(1) the time and labor required; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions; (3) the skill requisite to properly perform the legal service; (4) the preclusion of other employment by the attorney due to acceptance of the case; (5) the customary fee; (6) whether the fee is fixed or contingent; (7) time limitations imposed by the client or the circumstances; (8) the amount involved and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of the attorneys; (10) the ...

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