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Law Firm Secretary Awarded $277K for Overtime

It's not a good look when a firm practices employment law, but doesn't pay overtime.

For one Los Angeles law firm, it looked even worse when a court ordered the firm to pay almost $277,000 in attorney's fees to their former secretary.

Noemi Bernal was awarded $91,000, plus $30,000 in interest, against J.J. Little & Associates on her wage claims. With the additional attorney's fees award, it was more than adding insult to injury.

Insult to Injury

Bernal's lawyers wanted $830,000 in fees, but Judge Barbara Scheper declined to multiply their fees. She said some of the work had to be apportioned for claims that did not contemplate attorney's fees.

According to reports, Bernal alleged that she was hired as a secretary in 2010 for $1,000 a week to work a regular schedule. However, she testified that sometimes she had to work as many as 20 hours a day during trials.

The law firm, which advertises its employment litigation practice, expected her to respond to calls and texts on nights and weekends. Bernal was not paid overtime for any of that work, she said.

Jurors believed her, finding the law firm failed to pay overtime and did not keep accurate wage statements. They ruled in her favor in May.

Overtime for Lawyers

Unlike attorneys and other managers who work on a salary basis, law firm workers generally are entitled to hourly pay and overtime. That's Employment Law 101.

Employees may pursue their claims in court, but government agencies also have jurisdiction to penalize employers who violate wage and hour rules. The Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, for example, may impose penalties up to $1,000 for each willful violation.

For small firms like J.J. Little & Associates, a $400,000 judgment for one misclassified employee is substantial. But large firms or companies with thousands of employees could face even larger penalties for similar labor violations.

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