Fifth Circuit Refuses Application of Bright-Line Test in FLSA Seaman Exemption Dispute
On November 13, 2014, the Fifth Circuit addressed the uncertainty stemming from its decision in Owens v. SeaRiver Maritime, Inc., 272 F.3d 698 (5th Cir. 2001), wherein the Court found that a plaintiff’s unloading and loading of vessels was considered “nonseaman” work subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (“FLSA”) overtime requirements. Subsequent to that decision, plaintiffs have advocated for a broad application of Owens’s rule, and district courts struggled with Owens’s application to what are often fact-driven cases.
The Fifth Circuit provided necessary clarity in Coffin v. Blessey Marine Services, Inc., No. 13-20144, 2014 WL 5904734 (5th Cir. Nov. 13, 2014), when it reversed the district court on an interlocutory appeal and held that vessel-based crewmembers tasked with loading and unloading vessels are seamen under the FLSA rendering them exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements under 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(6). In so ruling, the Fifth Circuit limited its prior holding in Owens, by finding that the unloading and loading of vessels is not strictly “nonseaman” work, and that each individual and case must be analyzed under a facts-and-circumstances test. Significantly, in dicta, the Court intimated that the Department of Labor’s “twenty percent rule,” which states that an employee loses his seaman status when “nonseaman” work occupies over twenty percent of his time, is also not a bright-line test.
Plaintiffs are tankermen who lived and worked aboard Defendant’s vessels. Though the parties and the court agreed that most of Plaintiffs’ job duties were “seaman” work exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements, Plaintiffs filed suit alleging that their job duties related to the loading and unloading of vessels constituted “nonseaman” work for which overtime pay was owed. Plaintiffs and the district court relied on the Fifth Circuit’s prior holding in Owens, and the district court denied Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The district court and the Fifth Circuit granted Defendant’s interlocutory appeal under 29 U.S.C. § 1292(b).
Following oral argument, the Fifth Circuit issued its decision, which disagreed with Plaintiffs’ and the district court’s interpretation and application of Owens. Importantly, the Fifth Circuit distinguished Owens and emphasized that the analysis under the FLSA’s seaman exemption is a fact-based and flexible inquiry not subject to bright-line, categorical rules. The Court reasoned that the analysis required the consideration of the character of the work performed and the context in which it is performed and not the consideration of where the work is performed or how it is labelled. Unlike in Owens where the plaintiff was a non-crewmember who was not tied to a vessel and who only sought overtime for land-based loading and unloading, the Plaintiffs in this case lived on Defendant’s towboats, and their loading and unloading duties undisputedly affected the seaworthiness of the vessels and were integrated fully with their other seaman duties. Therefore, considering the character and context of the work performed, the Court concluded that the Plaintiffs’ unloading and loading duties were seaman work, thus exempting Plaintiffs from the FLSA’s overtime requirements. For these reasons, the Court vacated the lower court’s ruling and remanded the matter to enter judgment in favor of Defendant.