Personal security guard awarded liquidated damages in addition to overtime pay in FLSA case

Here, an employer of a personal security guard appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.


This appeal concerns a lawsuit brought by Everitte Quarles against Garrett Hamler, a musician and music producer. For five years Hamler employed Quarles as a personal security guard. In 2010 Quarles sued Hamler for overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). A jury awarded Quarles $65,497.50, and the district court also awarded the same amount in liquated damages, along with attorney’s fees. Hamler raises three claims on appeal. First, he says Quarles was not his employee for FLSA purposes. Second, he says he shouldn’t owe liquidated damages. Third, he says the district court awarded excessive attorney’s fees.

The Court discusses procedural issues before focusing on the 3 claims. The Court only ruled on the “liquidated damages” claim.

1.) The Court noted that Quarles was Hamler’s employee as per the “economic dependence” test.

For the claim about FLSA status, the district court was presented with facts sufficient to find that Quarles was Hamler’s employee. “[T]he overarching focus of the inquiry” into whether a plaintiff was the defendant’s employee rather than an independent contractor “is economic dependence.” Scantland v. Jeffry Knight, Inc., 721 F.3d 1308, 1312 (11th Cir. 2013). “[I]n considering economic dependence, the court focuses on whether an individual is in business for himself or is dependent upon finding employment in the business of others.” Id. (quotation omitted). Quarles presented plenty of evidence on this score. Quarles showed that he did not work for anyone else during the entire five years that he worked for Hamler. Indeed Hamler expected Quarles to guard him at all times that Hamler was working or traveling, and the district court found that Hamler told Quarles he could not work for anyone else. These findings amply support the district court’s finding that Quarles was Hamler’s employee.

2.) The Court stated that the attorney’s fees awarded were not excessive.

“As for the attorney’s fees, “[p]revailing plaintiffs are automatically entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs under the FLSA.” Dale v. Comcast Corp., 498 F.3d 1216, 1223 n.12 (11th Cir. 2007). Hamler claims the district court awarded excessive attorney’s fees, but provides no legal or evidentiary support for why this is so. The district court’s 17-page order on attorney’s fees thoroughly analyzed Quarles’s motion and reasonably reduced Quarles’s request by 30 percent. Even assuming our jurisdiction over this claim, we see no basis for holding that the district court abused its discretion. See Kreager v. Solomon & Flanagan, P.A., 775 F.2d 1541, 1543 (11th Cir. 1985) (“The determination of a reasonable fee pursuant to section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act is left to the sound discretion of the trial judge and will not be set aside absent a clear abuse of discretion.”).”

3.) The Court held that employer owed liquidated damages because he did not act in good faith.

For a claim like this, we review findings of fact for clear error and legal conclusions de novo. Dybach v. Fla. Dep’t of Corr, 942 F.2d 1562, 1566 (11th Cir. 1991). “Under the FLSA a district court generally must award a plaintiff liquidated damages that are equal in amount to actual damages.” Rodriguez v. Farm Stores Grocery, Inc., 518 F.3d 1259, 1272 (11th Cir. 2008). However, a district court “may, in its sound discretion, award no liquidated damages” “if the employer shows to the satisfaction of the court that the act or omission giving rise to [the FLSA] action was in good faith and that he had reasonable grounds for believing that his act or omission was not a violation of [FLSA].” 29 U.S.C. § 260. The employer bears the burden of proof on this issue. Joiner v. City of Macon, 814 F.2d 1537, 1539 (11th Cir. 1987).

The district court had an ample basis to find that Hamler did not act in good faith. The court’s decision about good faith was largely based on its finding that the “testimony regarding [Hamler’s] reliance on his accountants’ advice” was not credible. And Hamler’s argument on appeal also turns primarily on the court’s “fail[ure] to consider” the testimony on this issue as well. But “[i]t is the exclusive province of the judge in non-jury trials to assess the credibility of witnesses and to assign weight to their testimony.” Hearn v. McKay, 603 F.3d 897, 904 (11th Cir. 2010) (per curiam) (quotation omitted). For this reason “[w]e accord great deference to the district court’s credibility determinations.” United States v. Clay, 376 F.3d 1296, 1302 (11th Cir. 2004) (quotation omitted). The court heard testimony from Hamler and his accountant and decided that Hamler did “not demonstrate[] that he objectively acted in good faith.” We see no basis to override the court’s credibility determination.

Also, though the jury found that Hamler did not willfully or recklessly violate FLSA, we have held that this finding doesn’t preclude liquidated damages. This is because the burden for proving willfulness is with the employee, but the burden for proving good faith is with the employer. See Rodriguez, 518 F.3d at 1274. The district court had an ample basis to find that Hamler did not meet his burden as the employer. In any event, 29 U.S.C. § 260 merely provides that a district court “may, in its sound discretion, award no liquidated damages” “if the employer shows to the satisfaction of the court” that he acted in good faith. So, even if Hamler had proved he acted in good faith, the court still would have been within its discretion to award liquidated damages. Hamler has not proven that the district court abused its discretion when it chose to award liquidated damages here.

QUARLES v. HAMLER  (11th Cir. 2016)

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