Godfrey | Johnson Wins Federal Employment Case
Success in Jury Trial and Post-Trial Motions
October 25, 2018
Trainee status defense successful.
Following a four-day jury trial in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado, Brett Godfrey and Lily Nierenberg prevailed in an employment dispute involving claims under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act and the Colorado Wage Act. The plaintiff, Stephanie Lopez, brought suit against her former employer, Casper Trailer Sales and its owner, Carl Edwards, initially asserting claims for violation of those statutes and asserting a claim for battery (which was later voluntarily dismissed by plaintiff).
Plaintiff worked for Casper Trailer Sales for a period of years without salary or hourly compensation in exchange for lodging, food, a vehicle, and training in a variety of skills, including welding and trailer repair, various business operations and several other skills. Following her extended training period, plaintiff was placed in a conventional employment status under which she was paid hourly. About one year later, plaintiff resigned and then returned for a few weeks before resigning again.
In the federal suit, plaintiff claimed that under the foregoing statutes she was entitled after-the-fact to minimum wage for all hours she worked, particularly during her status as a trainee. Defendant disputed this assertion, and alleged that Plaintiff had agreed to work as a trainee and denied owing any unpaid wages or salary.
At the conclusion of the trial the jury rejected the bulk of plaintiff’s claim, awarding no damages for her years of work as a trainee.
Further success in post-trial proceedings.
The jury did award the small sum of $875.00, which was intended to compensate her for the final brief phase of her employment, during which she had admitted that she had been paid in cash by Mr. Edwards. Based upon that admission, the trial court granted a motion for judgment as a matter of law, vacating the $875.00 award and entering judgment for the defense on all claims.
The central question before the trial court following trial was whether the plaintiff could recover $160,000 in attorneys fees on the basis of her minimal recovery of any wages at all. The trial court’s ruling in favor of the defense on the basis of plaintiff’s admission that she had been paid in cash for the period covered by the jury’s award rendered moot any need for the trial court to determine whether to reduce the claimed attorneys fees on the basis of the small percentage of what the plaintiff recovered compared with what she was seeking.
The plaintiff has appealed the trial court’s ruling, but has not yet challenged the court’s rulings at trial or the jury’s verdict.
Lead counsel for the defense at trial, Brett Godfrey of Godfrey | Johnson, P.C., commented on the case, remarking that, “Statutory wage claims are difficult for employers because they risk potentially excessive outcomes if they challenge the wages claimed by a worker, making the risks associated with gambling on the outcome very one-sided. Most of the FLSA suits that are tried to juries result in awards for plaintiffs, but those awards are often minimal, spotlighting the question of whether the plaintiff was really a prevailing party for purposes of an attorney fee award. Most plaintiff lawyers in the employment arena claim huge fees in cases in which they prevailed only on a very small part of the claim. The law is evolving regarding a judge’s discretion to disallow fees or reduce them proportionately with the result.”