Under some laws–for example, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which governs minimum wages and overtime pay–courts are instructed to impose more stringent penalties if they find that a violation was “willful.” An FLSA violation is willful if the employer showed reckless disregard for whether its conduct was prohibited by the statute. In contrast, an employer that violated the FLSA but can show that it made good faith efforts to ascertain its legal obligations may pay less in back wages. In effect, if you make an effort to understand and comply with the law you get bonus points for good behavior.
In one recent case, Miles v. HSC-Hopson Services Co., Inc. (5th Cir. 2015), the court found that the employer (Hopson) violated the FLSA by docking employees 30 minutes of pay for tardiness–even when the employee was only five minutes late. In an effort to lessen damages, Hopson argued that his violation was not willful because he went to an “E-law” website and determined his conduct complied with FLSA guidelines. He did not consult with a lawyer or contact the Department of Labor prior to the lawsuit being filed.
The court rejected Hopson’s argument, finding that his reliance on his own understanding of an internet source constituted reckless disregard of his obligations. So, next time you have an FLSA question, or any other legal doubt for that matter, it might be more prudent to consult an attorney with expertise in the area than rely on your favorite internet search engine.