Eleventh Circuit Affirms Judgment for Employer in Paralegal’s FLSA Overtime Action

The Eleventh Circuit clarified the standards for relief under Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in Jenkins v. Anton, 2019 WL 1894415 (11th Cir. Apr. 29, 2019). After a paralegal sued her employer for overtime wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act and lost at a bench trial, she was denied relief under Rules 59 and 60. On appeal, she argued that the denials were abuses of discretion, that the district court misapplied the legal standard in finding she had not worked overtime, and that the district judge should have sua sponte recused himself.

In an opinion by Judge Tjoflat and under highly deferential standards, the Eleventh Circuit rejected each of the paralegal’s arguments and affirmed the district court. The court began by pinpointing the respective purposes of Rule 59(e), which is backward looking, Rule 59(a)(2), which is appropriate for newly discovered evidence, and Rule 59(a)(1)(B), which provides relief from a miscarriage of justice.

The paralegal’s first argument in seeking relief under each provision was that her predecessor at the law firm was newly available to testify. Rule 59(e) was inappropriate, the court reasoned, because, however it may be called, such testimony was additional evidence and thus could not be a mistake in judgment. The evidence was not “newly discovered” as required for Rule 59(a)(2) because the only new discovery by the paralegal was the reason for the witness’s unavailability—not the fact of her unavailability or what the content of her testimony would have been. And there could be no miscarriage of justice of Rule 59(a)(1)(B) because it was the paralegal’s own strategic choice to rest her case rather than seek a continuance, and the witness had never been included on the paralegal’s witness list.

After drawing such conclusions, the court took care to stringently observe Rule 59(a)(2)’s requirement that evidence be “newly discovered” lest parties be “incentivized to strategically manipulate” the system.

Additionally, while the paralegal was not required to identify “work” she performed during lunch to include such time in the overtime calculation, it was still not clearly erroneous to exclude such time where she had not identified any limitation on her freedom during lunch that would “inure to the benefit of [her] employer.” The court also easily rejected her claim of the employer’s misconduct under Rule 60.

Responding to the paralegal’s argument that the district court had misapplied FLSA’s burden-shifting framework set out in Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680 (1946), Judge Tjoflat explained that the district court’s finding was actually based on credibility—and the word of the paralegal against the employer, the bookkeeper, the paralegal’s successor, and the current paralegal.

Lastly, the failure to recuse was reviewed only for plain error where the paralegal had not sought recusal in the district court. Applying such a standard, the court found that the employer’s representation of the district judge’s ex-wife in their divorce proceedings, twice deposing the district judge, was too remote to cause a disinterested lay person to question the district judge’s partiality.

Posted by Keith Emanuel.

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