Federal Court Indicates Equitable Tolling Only Available in FLSA Cases When There is Evidence of Deception by Defendants

Lubin Austermuehle handles wage and hour class action litigation on a regular basis, and many of our clients’ claims are based upon violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Our Schaumburg unpaid overtime attorneys were interested to see a recent class-action brought by restaurant workers alleging violations of the FLSA.

Cao v. Wu Liang Ye Lexington Rest., Inc. is a suit filed by twenty-four employees of two restaurants in New York City. The employees worked as waiters, delivery workers, and a food packer for Defendants and filed suit for unpaid minimum and overtime wages, illegal tip deductions, expense reimbursement for the purchase and maintenance of bicycles and uniforms. Plaintiffs also sought statutory liquidated damages, prejudgment interest, and attorneys’ fees. Plaintiffs filed for default, which was granted by the Court. Plaintiffs subsequently submitted their damages calculations and Defendants opposed Plaintiffs’ application for damages on the basis that Plaintiffs’ calculations were inflated and Defendants’ violations of the FLSA were not willful.

The Court addressed Defendants’ arguments by first discussing the applicable law. The limitations period for FLSA claims is generally two years, but is three years for defendants that willfully break the law. The Court then ruled that the three year statute of limitations was applicable because Defendants defaulted and therefore admitted Plaintiffs’ willfulness allegations. The Court also found the longer statute of limitations applied because Defendants admitted that they did not try to learn about the FLSA’s requirements until just prior to the commencement of the lawsuit. Plaintiffs argued that they should receive unpaid wages for the entirety of their employment under the doctrine of equitable tolling due to the fact that Defendants failed to post a notice explaining the FLSA in plain view of employees. The Court saw no reason to extend Plaintiffs’ claims beyond the statutory three year period because Defendants’ had not engaged in any sort of deception or other exceptional activity, and prior case law held that equitable tolling only applies in unusual circumstances. The Court finished by granting Plaintiffs damages for unpaid minimum wage, overtime wages, unlawful tip deductions, reimbursement for bicycle expenses, liquidated damages, prejudgment interest, and attorneys’ fees.

The Court denied reimbursement for uniform expenses because most of the clothing worn by employees could be “worn as a part of the employees’ ordinary wardrobe.” Plaintiffs did also wear a red vest that could be considered outside an ordinary wardrobe, but there was no evidence in the record that Plaintiffs’ incurred expenses obtaining or cleaning the red vests.

Cao v. Wu Liang Ye Lexington Rest., Inc. provides future wage and hour litigants with several lessons when it comes to preparing damages applications. First and foremost, courts are unlikely to apply equitable tolling to extend the FLSA’s statute of limitations in the absence of intentional deception or fraud by defendants. Additionally, this case serves as a reminder that employees should keep accurate records of work related expenses if they wish to recover damages under the FLSA.

Lubin Austermuehle has a team of attorneys who focus on nationwide class action lawsuits and who have successfully handled many large wage and hour disputes. Our Elgin overtime lawyers are intimately familiar with the issues that arise during wage claim litigation, and we know the laws that govern overtime cases well. Our attorneys are dedicated to getting you your unpaid wages and giving you efficient and dynamic representation. If you believe that you are owed overtime wages, contact one of our Chicago wage and hour attorneys by phone at 1 630-333-0333, or through our online form.

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