Standards of Willfulness Under the Fair Labor Standards Act

The statutes of limitations facing plaintiffs who bring actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act [FLSA] vary, depending upon the willfulness of the violation. The Act establishes two limitations: three years for willful violations, and two years for nonwillful violations. It does not, however, define willfulness, and federal courts have interpreted the concept in two very different ways. Under the more prevalent rule, the test is: “Did the employer know the FLSA was in the picture?” But other courts have been more guarded, reserving the longer limitations period for “violations which are intentional, knowing or voluntary as distinguished from accidental.” These two interpretations have markedly different ramifications. Under the broad approach, an employer’s knowledge that the FLSA may apply makes any violation willful; good faith does not negate willfulness, and thus most FLSA violations remain actionable throughout a three-year limitations period. The narrow interpretation, in contrast, requires some evil intent by the employer, so that a demonstration of good faith is enough to trigger the briefer limitation. This Note studies the relative merits of the two approaches courts have taken toward interpreting “willfulness” under the FLSA. It evaluates them by reference to the history of the limitations provision, concluding that the restrictive approach is more consonant with Congress’s purpose in establishing a two-tiered statute of limitations.