The issue of whether an employer “willfully” violated the Fair Labor and Standards Act (“FLSA”) by failing to pay overtime wages is important because a willful violation allows a plaintiff to recover an additional year of lost wages. See 29 U.S.C. § 255(a). The question of what a willful violation is appeared recently in a Third Circuit Court decision in Souryavong v. Lackawanna Cty., No. 15-3895, 2017 WL 4159604 (3d Cir. Sept. 20, 2017). The issue in Souryavong arose because Lackawanna County failed to properly aggregate hours worked of county employees, who held two different part-time jobs, resulting in a failure to pay overtime. There was testimony on behalf of the county which said they were generally “aware” of their obligations under the FLSA, and there was also an e-mail from another county official that recognized this error in tracking time of these employees and the county took measures to address and fix the issue.
In order to find the county liable for a willful violation, the county must have known its conduct was prohibited, or “showed reckless disregard for the matter.” McLaughlin v. Richland Shoe Co., 486 U.S. 128, 133, 108 S.Ct. 1677, 100 L.Ed.2d 115 (1988). Acting only “unreasonably” is insufficient—some degree of actual awareness is necessary. The Third Circuit determined that willful violations of the FLSA require a more specific awareness of the legal issue than was present in this case. The Court further explained that the county lacked a level of egregiousness, which had been found in other willful violations in sister courts. Weighing these factors together, the Court determined there was no “willful” violation of the FLSA by the county.