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Maritime Update: Court Rejects Tankermen Suit For Unpaid Overtime

On November 13, 2014, the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a suit by former tankermen filed against their prior employer for unpaid overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") in the case Coffin v. Blessey Marine Services, Inc. This ruling clarifies that loading and unloading a vessel is not always non-seaman work for purposes of the FLSA.

Background

Blessey Marine Services, Inc. ("Blessey") is a business that ships liquid cargo along inland and oceanic waterways. Blessey uses a system of equipment called a "unit tow," which consists of a towboat and two tank barges. Each Blessey barge includes several separate tanks that can be used for storing liquid. Loading and unloading this type of barge is a complex process performed by tankermen. 

The unit tow is manned by a crew that lives and works on the towboat for a designated period of time. The crew consists of a "wheelman," a pilot, tankermen and deckhands. Several former Blessey tankermen filed suit against Blessey in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas under the Fair Labor Standards Act claiming that loading and unloading a vessel is always non-seaman work for purposes of the FLSA. 

Following extensive discovery, Blessey moved to dismiss the suit because seamen are exempt from the FLSA and, as such, overtime pay was not owed to the former employees. The trial court refused to grant Blessey's motion for summary judgment, and Blessey appealed. The Fifth Circuit vacated the trial court ruling and remanded the case for entry of judgment in favor of Blessey.

Discussion

The plaintiffs typically worked as seamen aboard a designated vessel for approximately 84 hours during a seven-day period and were paid a "day rate" or flat daily sum. They were not paid overtime for any work. To decide whether plaintiffs were seamen exempt from the FLSA, the court examined the relevant statutory and regulatory language setting out obligations imposed by the FLSA. The FLSA generally forbids employing workers for a workweek longer than forty hours "unless such employee receives compensation for his employment . . . at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed." An employee is not protected by this broad prohibition, however, if he falls within an exemption from the statutory coverage. The FLSA exempts "seamen" from overtime.

The Fifth Circuit turned to the Department of Labor regulations for guidance in interpreting whether plaintiffs were seamen. The court noted that the FLSA emphasizes flexibility, which indicates that the meaning of the term "seaman" is governed by the context in which is it used, and the purpose of the statute in which it is found. The application of the seaman exception generally depends on the facts in each case.

The court concluded that loading and unloading duties are seaman work when performed by vessel-based tankermen who were under the direction and control of the wheelman and were responsible for operating the ship. The Fifth Circuit held that plaintiffs were seamen while loading and unloading vessels because these duties were integrated within their many other duties. 

Why is This Important?

  1. Tankermen whose duties are divorced from navigation of a vessel or barge may be entitled to overtime pay.
  2. Whether specific tankermen are seamen exempt from overtime pay is intensely fact bound and case specific and must be judged on the peculiar facts.
  3. Employers of tankermen and those contracting for tankermen services should evaluate whether the employees are exempt from the FLSA as seamen and/or who will be responsible for keeping track of, and paying overtime to, the tankermen if they are not exempt.

Please email me at bmason@stonepigman.com if you have any comments or questions.

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