Tag Archives: Covered Employee

6th Cir.: Purportedly “Volunteer” Firefighters, Paid Per Call as Independent Contractors, Are “Employees” Under FLSA

Mendel v. City of Gibraltar

This case was before the Sixth Circuit, following the district court’s order granting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Although the case concerned the issue of whether the defendant-City met the prerequisite for FMLA coverage (number of employees), the issue considered by the Sixth Circuit was “purportedly volunteer firefighters who receive a substantial hourly wage for responding to calls whenever they choose to do so are “employees” or “volunteers” for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).” The Sixth Circuit held that the firefighters at issue were employees rather than volunteers, such that the defendant met the number of employee requirement to trigger FMLA coverage.

The Sixth Circuit laid out the following facts relevant to its inquiry of whether the firefighters were properly deemed to be employees or volunteers:

The volunteer firefighters of Gibraltar must complete training on their own time without compensation.  While they are not required to respond to any emergency call, they are paid $15 per hour for the time they do spend responding to a call or maintaining equipment. They do not work set shifts or staff a fire station; they maintain other employment and have no consistent schedule working as volunteer firefighters.  The firefighters generally receive a Form–1099 MISC from the City. They do not receive health insurance, sick or vacation time, social security benefits, or premium pay. The City does have an employment application for the firefighters, and it apparently keeps a personnel file for each firefighter. A volunteer firefighter may be promoted or discharged.  [The Plaintiff] introduced evidence below of what several other local communities pay their full-time firefighters. According to his wife’s affidavit, she and Mendel discovered that certain other communities in the area pay hourly wages ranging from approximately $14 to $17 per hour. Also, the City pays its own part-time Fire Chief $20,000 per year, and the Chief testified in his deposition that he “tr[ies] to work 20 hours per week at the [Gibraltar] fire station.” Based on this information, the Secretary of Labor notes in her amicus brief that if one assumes the Fire Chief works fifty-two weeks per year, he effectively earns $19.23 per hour.

After explaining that the FMLA’s definition of “employees” incorporates the FLSA’s definition, the Court then examined the issue under the FLSA. Holding that the firefighters were employees and not volunteers, the Court explained:

Here, it appears that the Gibraltar firefighters fall within the FLSA’s broad definition of employee. The firefighters are suffered or permitted to work, see
29 U.S.C. § 203(g), and they even receive substantial wages for their work.

This is not the end of our analysis, however. In 1986, Congress amended the FLSA to clarify that individuals who volunteer to perform services for a public agency are not employees under the Act. Section 203(e) now includes the following provision:

The term “employee” does not include any individual who volunteers to perform services for a public agency which is a State, a political subdivision of a State, or an interstate governmental agency, if—

(i) the individual receives no compensation or is paid expenses, reasonable benefits, or a nominal fee to perform the services for which the individual volunteered; and

(ii) such services are not the same type of services which the individual is employed to perform for such public agency.

29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(4)(A).

Thus, the question becomes whether the Gibraltar firefighters fall within this exception to the FLSA’s generally broad definition of “employee.” Specifically, the question before us is whether the wages paid to the firefighters constitute “compensation” or merely a “nominal fee.” If the hourly wages are compensation, then the firefighters are employees under the FLSA. Conversely, if the wages are merely a nominal fee, then the firefighters are volunteers expressly excluded from the FLSA’s definition of employee.

The official regulations provide guidance at this juncture. The regulations define “volunteer” as “[a]n individual who performs hours of service for a public agency for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.101(a); see also 29 C.F.R. § 553.104(a) (employing similar language). The regulations proceed to recognize, “Volunteers may be paid expenses, reasonable benefits, a nominal fee, or any combination thereof, for their service without losing their status as volunteers.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.106(a). The specific provision addressing nominal fees provides, in part, “A nominal fee is not a substitute for compensation and must not be tied to productivity. However, this does not preclude the payment of a nominal amount on a ‘per call’ or similar basis to volunteer firefighters.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.106(e). Finally, the regulations caution, “Whether the furnishing of expenses, benefits, or fees would result in individuals’ losing their status as volunteers under the FLSA can only be determined by examining the total amount of payments made (expenses, benefits, fees) in the context of the economic realities of the particular situation.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.106(f).

In the context of the economic realities of this particular situation, we hold that the hourly wages paid to the Gibraltar firefighters are not nominal fees, but are compensation under the FLSA. The firefighters do not receive “a nominal amount on a ‘per call’ or similar basis.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.106(e). Rather, they render services with the promise, expectation, and receipt of substantial compensation. See 29 C.F.R. §§ 553.101(a), 553.104(a). Each time a firefighter responds to a call, he knows he will receive compensation at a particular hourly rate—which happens to be substantially similar to the hourly rates paid to full-time employed firefighters in some of the neighboring areas. Essentially, the Gibraltar firefighters are paid a regular wage for whatever time they choose to spend responding to calls. These substantial hourly wages simply do not qualify as nominal fees. Cf. Purdham v. Fairfax Cnty. Sch. Bd., 637 F.3d 421, 433–34 (4th Cir.2011) (holding that a School Board’s payment of a fixed stipend to a golf coach was a nominal fee where: (1) the stipend amount did not change based on either how much time and effort the coach expended on coaching activities or how successful the team was; and (2) the approximate hourly rate to which the coach’s stipend could be converted was only a fraction (less than¼) of the hourly wage he received as a full-time security assistant employed by the School Board).

Notably, the Supreme Court has held that those who “work in contemplation of compensation” are “employees” within the meaning of the FLSA, even though they may view themselves as “volunteers.” Tony & Susan Alamo Found., 471 U.S. at 300–02, 306, 105 S.Ct. 1953. Despite the fact that the Gibraltar firefighters are referred to as “volunteers,” the inescapable fact nevertheless remains that they “work in contemplation of compensation.” Thus, the Gibraltar firefighters are “employees” and not “volunteers” within the meaning of the FLSA. See Krause v. Cherry Hill Fire Dist. 13, 969 F.Supp. 270, 277 (D.N.J.1997) (“In view of the fact that the plaintiffs [firefighters] both expected and received hourly compensation, in an amount greater than a ‘nominal’ fee, it is clear that plaintiffs were not volunteers….”).

Finally, the Court rejected the defendant’s contention—apparently adopted by the court below, that the firefighters were not “employees” under the FLSA, because they fell within the purview of 207(y).

Thus, the Court concluded “under the relevant authority and the facts of this case, we are constrained to hold that, simply put, the substantial wages paid to these firefighters constitute compensation, not nominal fees, which makes the Gibraltar firefighters employees, not volunteers, for purposes of the FLSA and FMLA.”

Click Mendel v. City of Gibraltar to read the entire Opinion. Click DOL Amicus Brief, to read the DOL’s Brief in support of the Plaintiff-Appellant, relied upon in part by the Court.

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D.Mass.: Where 10% of Business Comprised of Sales of Automobiles, Defendant Not “Primarily Engaged in the Business of Selling Such Vehicles”

Carroca v. All Star Enterprises and Collision Center Inc.

Although not often the subject of litigation, pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 213(10)(a), certain employees of automobile dealerships are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements. Specifically, that statute exempts from overtime:

any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles, trucks, or farm implements, if he is employed by a nonmanufacturing establishment primarily engaged in the business of selling such vehicles or implements to ultimate purchasers…

In this case, the court was called upon, in part, to decide whether defendant—90% of its business was the repair of automobiles, with the remaining 10% of the business comprised of the sale of automobiles—qualified as such an automobile dealership. The court held, as a matter of law, that such a business does not qualify for the exemption.

The court reasoned:

All Star admits that Carroca was employed as an auto body repairman. D. 19 ¶ 5; D. 23 ¶ 5. Assuming without deciding that an auto body repairman is a “salesman, partsman, or mechanic,” the next question, which the parties dispute, is whether Carroca was “employed by a nonmanufacturing establishment primarily engaged in the business of selling [automobiles, trucks, or farm implements] to ultimate purchasers.” The Department of Labor has issued 29 C.F.R. § 779.372, which defines what it means to be “primarily engaged” in said business. According to the regulation, “[a]s applied to the establishment, primarily engaged means that over half of the establishments [sic] annual dollar volume of sales made or business done must come from sales of the enumerated vehicles.” Id.; see Donovan v. Bereuter’s, Inc., 704 F.2d 1034, 1036–37 (8th Cir.1983) (construing “the legislative history as indicating that Congress intended the exemption to be narrowly applied and was not designed to exempt those dealers who engage in the retail sales of automobiles to a limited degree”).

Here, as All Star acknowledges, D. 22 at 2, All Star has the burden of proof with respect to the applicability of the exemption. Hines v. State Room Inc., 665 F.3d 235, 240 (1st Cir.2011). Here, All Star has not met that burden where All Star admits that only “approximately ten percent” of All Star’s business constitutes automobile sales. Pl. Stmt. of Facts, D. 19 ¶ 2; Def. Resp., D. 23 ¶ 2; see Def. Resp. to Interrog. ¶ 5 (stating that “vehicle sales constitute approximately 10% of the business of Allstar; approximately 90% of the business consists of vehicle repair”). Thus, All Star is incorrect that it falls within the FLSA overtime exemption under 29 U.S.C. § 213. Accordingly, the exemption does not apply to All Star and it is bound by the overtime provisions under 29 U.S.C. § 207.

Click Carroca v. All Star Enterprises and Collision Center Inc. to read the entire Memorandum and Order.

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S.D.N.Y.: Where Successor Liability Alleged, “Successor in Interest” Need Not Meet the $500,000 Threshold As Long as the Previous Employer Did

Alvarez v. 40 Mulberry Restaurant, Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff alleged that the defendant at issue was a “successor in interest” to his actual employers, whom he actively worked for and whose failure to pay him pursuant to the FLSA gave rise to his claims. The defendant alleged to be the “successor in interest” such that it had derivative liability (of plaintiff’s actual employers), asserted that the case was due to be dismissed against it, because plaintiff could not show that it grossed $500,000.00 or more in annual sales during the periods relevant to the claim. Explaining that this was an incorrect reading of the law, the court reasoned that the successor employer was covered, so long as the plaintiff’s actual employers were subject to enterprise coverage under the FLSA. However, because neither the plaintiff, nor the defendants addressed the issue of whether the plaintiffs actual employers were covered enterprises, the court remanded the case for further discovery on this issue.

Discussing the issue, the court explained:

Defendants 40 Mulberry and Chin claim that, because it has not been established that AR Restaurant has ever grossed $500,000 or more in annual sales, Alvarez’s FLSA claim must be dismissed. That is incorrect.

The FLSA covers only those workers employed by an “enterprise” that is “engaged in commerce.” 29 U.S.C. § 207. “An entity constitutes an enterprise where ‘the related activities performed (either through unified operation or common control) by any person or persons [are] for a common business purpose.’ ” Rodriguez v. Almighty Cleaning, 784 F.Supp.2d 114, 121 (E.D.N.Y.2011) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 203(r)). An enterprise is “engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce” if, inter alia, it: (1) “has employees engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce;” or “has employees handling, selling, or otherwise working on goods or materials that have been moved in or produced for commerce by any person;” and (2) its “annual gross volume of sales made or business done is not less than $500,000 (exclusive of excise taxes at the retail level that are separately stated).” 29 U.S.C. § 203(s)(1)(A)(i)-(ii).

Defendants argue that, because the summary judgment record would not permit a fact finder to conclude that AR Restaurant has ever grossed $500,000 or more in annual sales, Alvarez cannot sue 40 Mulberry and Chin under the FLSA. But that does not logically follow. It is correct that, on the record before the Court, AR Restaurant’s financial condition would prevent an employee from suing under the FLSA based on work done at AR Restaurant. But Alvarez is not seeking to impose liability on 40 Mulberry and Chin based on AR Restaurant’s activities. Instead, he is claiming that, during his employment at the former Asia Roma, which ended in July 2010, the former Asia Roma (1) had $500,000 or more in annual sales; and (2) violated the FLSA’s substantive obligations as to overtime and other pay. He further alleges that defendants 40 Mulberry and Chin are responsible for those violations as successors in interest. Assuming arguendo that Asia Roma had $500,000 in annual revenues required by the FLSA in, say, 2009, the fact that AR Restaurant has not had such revenues would not shield defendants, if properly held to be responsible for Asia Roma’s conduct, from liability for FLSA violations during 2009. The financial condition of AR Restaurant is thus not determinative. The relevant question is, instead, whether Asia Roma was a qualifying “enterprise engaged in commerce” when it employed Alvarez, and whether 40 Mulberry and Chin are answerable for Asia Roma’s liabilities.

It does not appear that the parties have focused their discovery efforts on the critical question of whether Asia Roma had the requisite sales during Alvarez’s employment. However, this question is potentially dispositive, and the Court believes it must be addressed promptly.

The Court, accordingly, grants the parties one month to conduct further discovery—by means including, but not limited to, subpoenas to Asia Roma, Chan, Lee, or any other relevant party, person, or entity—on the question of whether Asia Roma constituted an “enterprise engaged in commerce” during the period of Alvarez’s employment. After the close of discovery, the Court will afford the defendants two weeks to move for summary judgment on the issue of whether Asia Roma was an “enterprise engaged in commerce” during the years it employed Alvarez. If summary judgment is granted for the defendants on that ground, such that Alvarez’s FLSA claims cannot go forward, the Court expects to dismiss, without prejudice, his state law claims. If, on the other hand, the FLSA sales threshold is met by competent evidence for all or some of these years, discovery may then go forward on the remaining issues in the case.

The court also denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment to the extent they sought a finding that the subsequent business was not a successor in interest, reasoning that under the relevant tests (the traditional common law test OR the “substantial continuity test”) a finder of fact could certainly find that the subsequent business was a successor in interest to plaintiff’s actual employers.

Click Alvarez v. 40 Mulberry Restaurant, Inc. to read the entire Opinion & Order.

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E.D.Va.: Plaintiff Alleged Actionable Retaliation Claim, Where Asserted Former Employer Denied Him Work as Independent Contractor In Retaliation for Testimony in Co-Employee’s Case

Boscarello v. Audio Video Systems, Inc.

In this Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) retaliation action, a former employee sued his former employers alleging that defendants retaliated against him, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), by refusing to provide him work as an independent contractor following his submission of an affidavit supporting a current employee’s FLSA claim against the employers.  The case was before the court on defendants’ motion to dismiss, for failure to state a claim.  At issue on defendants’ motion was whether a former employee states a valid FLSA retaliation claim where, the alleged retaliation consists of the employer’s refusal to provide its former employee work as an independent contractor, work that the employer was not contractually obligated to provide, but which the employer indicated would be provided.  Following Fourth Circuit precedent, the court held that the Plaintiff had indeed stated a valid cause of action.

Click Boscarello v. Audio Video Systems, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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N.D.Ind.: Employee Of Used Car Business, Who Purchased Cars From Other States At Auto Auctions, Subject To Individual Coverage Of FLSA

Kelley v. Stevens Auto Sales

Plaintiff sued Defendants alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, (FLSA) 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., and several Indiana statutes. This matter is before the Court on cross motions for summary judgment. Of interest, as discussed here, the Defendants argued that neither they, nor Plaintiff, individually was subject to FLSA coverage. The Court denied Defendants’ Motion, finding that Plaintiff could be entitled to individual coverage based on his duties while working for Defendants.

The following facts were relevant to the Court’s inquiry on the coverage issue:

“Defendant Dave Stevens is the president of Defendant Dave Stevens Auto Sales, Inc. (SAS). In 2007, SAS was in the business of selling used cars in Peru, Indiana. Plaintiff worked for SAS for part of that year as its only employee. His duties included traveling to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to buy used cars at auction establishments and reselling them to customers at the SAS sales lot in Peru. According to Defendant Stevens, some of the vehicles SAS purchased at the auctions were titled to owners from states other than Indiana. Stevens was Plaintiff’s boss; he determined how Plaintiff was compensated.”

Denying Defendants’ Motion as to the individual coverage issue the Court stated:

“The FLSA requires employers to pay a minimum wage if the employer is a covered enterprise or the employee is a covered individual within the meaning of the Act. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a). A covered enterprise is one that (1) “has employees engaged in commerce or the production of goods for commerce or that has employees handling, selling, or otherwise working on goods or materials that have been moved in or produced for commerce by any person” and (2) “is an enterprise whose annual gross volume of sales made or business done is not less than $500,000.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(s)(1)(A) (i-ii). If enterprise coverage applies, all of the enterprise’s employees are protected under the FLSA, even if they are not personally involved in interstate commerce. See Boekemeier v. Fourth Universalist Soc’y in the City of New York, 86 F.Supp.2d 280, 284 (S.D.N.Y.2000). The FLSA also protects individual employees who are “engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce,” 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1), regardless of whether their employers qualify as covered enterprises. See, e.g., Marshall v. Whitehead, 463 F.Supp. 1329, 1341 (M.D.Fla.1978).

Plaintiff concedes that SAS is not a covered enterprise, but maintains that he qualifies for individual coverage because he was engaged in interstate commerce when he worked for SAS. To determine whether an employee is engaged in interstate commerce in this context, the focus is on what the employee actually does. It is not enough that the employee’s activities affect or indirectly relate to interstate commerce: they must be “actually in or so clearly related to the movement of the commerce as to be a part of it.”   McLeod v. Threlkeld, 319 U.S. 491, 497 (1943). For example, handlers of goods for a wholesaler who moves them interstate are engaged in interstate commerce, while those employees who handle goods after acquisition by a merchant for local distribution are not. Id. At 494, (citin g Walling v. Jacksonville Paper Co., 317 U.S. 564 (1943); Higgins v. Carr Bros. Co., 317 U.S. 572 (1942)). An interruption in the movement of goods that have traveled interstate does not remove them from interstate commerce simply because they do not again cross state lines; they remain in interstate commerce until they reach the customers for whom they are intended. Jacksonville Paper Co., 317 U.S. at 335.

Neither party has directed the Court to cases in any jurisdiction with facts similar to those presented here, nor has the Court’s independent research uncovered any. However, applying the general principals discussed above, the Court must deny Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The Court concludes that buying vehicles titled to out-of-state owners at auction, for resale to the ultimate consumer, constitutes engaging in interstate commerce, even if the vehicles did not cross a state line again after the purchase. Plaintiff has designated enough evidence that he engaged in interstate commerce as an employee of SAS to create a question of fact for trial. Moreover, the Court must also deny Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of whether he is a covered employee, because the evidence does not establish as a matter of law that at all times relevant to his claim he was engaged in interstate commerce.”

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