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Maritime Update: ROV Operator Lives to Fight Another Day

On April 19, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in the case Kyle Halle v. Galliano Marine Service, LLC; C-Innovation, LLC, reversed a judgment in favor of an employer in a Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") dispute.  This ruling is significant because whether an operator/technician of a Remotely Operated Vehicle ("ROV") is considered to be a seaman under the FLSA had not previously been decided, and it provides guidance on how such employees will be classified for purposes of the FLSA going forward.

A.   Background

The FLSA is a federal statute that provides minimum wage, overtime pay and child labor protections.  Certain employers and employees are exempt from coverage. 

Plaintiff Kyle Halle, a ROV operator/supervisor, was not paid overtime for work he performed offshore aboard a ROV support vessel.  Halle sued Galliano Marine Service and C-Innovation (collectively "Defendants") under the FLSA to recover unpaid overtime. 

Defendants run a ROV business for offshore applications.  ROV support vessels are specially outfitted to transport ROVs over water.  ROVs are unoccupied mechanical devices used to fix, service and repair offshore underwater drilling rigs and perform underwater tasks that cannot be performed by human divers. 

Technicians like Halle control ROVs from a ROV command center on a support vessel using video feed and joysticks.  These technicians are not part of the support vessel's crew, cannot see whether any navigational issues are affecting the support vessel and are generally considered passengers.

Defendants moved to dismiss Halle's suit because he was exempt from the FLSA overtime provision as a "seaman".  The district court agreed and dismissed Halle's suit.  Halle appealed.

B.   Discussion

The Fifth Circuit noted that the definition of a "seaman" for purposes of the Jones Act is not equivalent to that in the FLSA.  Exemptions under the FLSA have been narrowly drawn to minimize the number of employees that lose the Act's protections.  Given these differences, the Fifth Circuit found that the district court erred in resorting to Jones Act case law, which defines "seaman" and "appurtenance" to a vessel.  The court ultimately held that Defendants failed to establish that the "seaman" exemption in the FLSA applied to Halle, reversed the judgment in favor of Defendants and remanded the case for further proceedings.

C.   Why is this important?

  1. ROV operators/technicians/supervisors may not fall within the FLSA "seaman" exemption.

  2. The FLSA requires employers to keep accurate records of the hours worked by employees.
     
  3. Failure to keep complete and accurate records can present a problem if a dispute arises.

  4. If accurate time records are not maintained, an employee may meet this burden through testimony, relying merely on his/her recollection, as to the approximate number of overtime hours worked.

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