C.D.A.C.: Court Declines to Adopt “Economic Reality” Test and Confirms Prisoners Are Not Covered by FLSA

Shipley v. Woolrich, Inc.

This case was before the court on plaintiff’s appeal of an order dismissing his FLSA case below, based on the fact that, as a federal prisoner, he was not an employee subject to FLSA coverage.  The district court sua sponte dismissed the complaint, relying on the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Henthorn v. Dep’t of the Navy, 29 F.3d 682, 686 (D.C . Cir.1994), in which they noted that convicted criminals are not protected by the Thirteenth Amendment against involuntary servitude and that a prisoner is barred from asserting a claim under the FLSA where the prisoner’s labor is compelled and/or where any compensation he receives is set and paid by his custodian.

On appeal the plaintiff argued that the court should adopt an “economic reality” test based on whether the labor in question involves a “service,” such as the janitorial chores performed in Henthorn, or rather involves a “good,” such as the making of clothes performed by the plaintiff.

Rejecting this argument, the court reasoned:

“In Henthorn the appellant asked us to adopt a somewhat similar “economic reality” test that would have made a distinction, for purposes of applying the FLSA, between work inside or outside the prison compound. We declined the request, holding instead that a prerequisite to finding that an inmate is covered “under the FLSA is that the prisoner has freely contracted with a non-prison employer to sell his labor.” 29 F.3d at 686. Here we likewise reject Shipley’s request and follow our holding in Henthorn.

In Henthorn we stated that at the pleading stage “a federal prisoner seeking to state a claim under the FLSA must allege that his work was performed without legal compulsion and that his compensation was set and paid by a source other than the Bureau of Prisons itself.” Id. at 687. Here, Shipley has made no allegation that his work was voluntary or that he was paid by anyone other than UNICOR, an entity within the organizational structure of the Bureau of Prisons.”

While the court made clear that work performed for a private entity may sometimes qualify a prisoner as an “employee” subject to the FLSA coverage, such facts were not present here.

Click Shipley v. Woolrich, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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Filed under Coverage, Prisoners

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