Hoffman v. First Student, Inc.
In this FLSA case, both the Plaintiffs, school bus drivers, and Defendant, a motor carrier, who employed them, moved for summary judgment as to whether Plaintiffs were exempt employees under the motor carrier act (MCA) exemption to the FLSA. The Court denied both motions, finding that factual issues precluded a finding one way or another.
“Under the FMCSR, First Student was a “for-hire” private motor carrier of passengers, and its school bus drivers were subject to the federal safety regulations contained in 49 C.F.R. Parts 382, 383, 387, 390-96. The FMCSR’s regulatory guidance, which can be found on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (“FMCSA”) website at http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov, sets forth the types of school bus services covered by the regulations. The FMCSA mandates that “anyone operating school buses under contract with a school is a for-hire motor carrier,” and when a “for-hire motor carrier transports children to school-related functions other than ‘school bus operation’ (as defined in 49 C.F.R. § 390.5), such as for “sporting events, class trips, etc., and operates across State lines,” the carrier is covered by the safety regulations. See FMCSR Regulatory Guidance Part 390.3, Question 14, available at http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov. Normal “school to home and home to school” driving activities are not covered. Id. In full accordance with this guidance, it was Defendant’s policy to pay its Baltimore bus drivers pursuant to the FLSA for “school to home and home to school” trips, but not for charter trips.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has determined that “if in the regular course of employment a driver is, or could be, called upon to transport a shipment in interstate commerce the driver would be subject” to the Department of Transportation’s jurisdiction and “even a minor involvement in interstate commerce as a regular part of an employee’s duties will subject that employee to the jurisdiction” of the Department of Transportation. See FMCSR Regulatory Guidance, Part 390.3, Question 24, at http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Labor states that:
Where safety affecting employees have not made an actual interstate trip, they may still be subject to DOT’s jurisdiction if: (1) the employer is shown to have involvement in interstate commerce; and (2) it can be established that the employee could have, in the regular course of employment, been reasonably expected to make an interstate journey. See U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Standards Administration, Wage and Hour Division, Fact Sheet # 19: The Motor Carrier Exemption Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), available at http://www.dol.gov.
Thus, First Student posits that the drivers who volunteer to join its “charter pool” are categorically ineligible for overtime pay under the statutory and regulatory regime described above because: (1) FLSA’s overtime provisions do not apply to “any employee with respect to whom the Secretary of Transportation has power to establish qualifications and hours of service,”29 U.S.C. § 213(b) (1), and (2) the Secretary of the Department of Transportation is authorized to prescribe the “qualifications” and “hours of service” of drivers in the “charter pool.”
Plaintiffs seek to avoid this result with two arguments. First, they point to an exception set out in the Motor Carrier Act which plausibly creates a categorical exclusion for school bus drivers from the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Transportation. Second, plaintiffs contend that even if they are not categorically excluded from coverage under the Motor Carrier Act, First Student has not established the motor carrier defense as a matter of law (and summary judgment must be denied) because defendant has failed to demonstrate that, as a matter of law, plaintiffs’ involvement with interstate commerce is other than “trivial” and de minimis, or that interstate travel was a “natural, integral and … inseparable part of the position plaintiffs held,” Dauphin v. Chestnut Ridge Transportation, Inc., 544 F.Supp.2d 266, 275 (S.D.N.Y.2008), and that proper evaluation of that defense must await trial.
As explained herein, I conclude that while defendant correctly contends that the motor carrier exemption defense is available, the record does not establish the elements of that defense as a matter of law. Accordingly, defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to the overtime claims is granted in part and denied in part 2.
The Motor Carrier Act (hereafter, “the MCA”) is found at 49 U.S .C. § 13501 et seq.Section 13501 gives the Secretary of the Department of Transportation (hereafter, “the Secretary”) jurisdiction over interstate motor carriers, and a separate section, 49 U.S.C. § 31502(b)(2), empowers the Secretary to set “qualifications” and “hours of service” for employees of interstate motor carriers. As a matter of law, First Student is a form of “motor carrier” within the jurisdiction of the MCA. However, certain types of interstate travel are not within the Secretary’s jurisdiction because they are exempted from the MCA.
One exemption excludes from the Secretary’s jurisdiction “a motor vehicle transporting only school children and teachers to or from school.”49 U.S.C. § 13506(a)(1). On its face, this exemption from the Act seems to mean that the routine carriage of students by the drivers employed by contract motor carriers such as defendant on behalf of local school districts renders the drivers eligible for overtime under the FLSA, i.e., that such employees are not within the class of employees “with respect to whom the Secretary of Transportation has power to establish qualifications and hours of service.”29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(1). And, the statutory term “to or from school” could reasonably be interpreted to include not only transportation “to or from [home to] school [and back],” but also “to or from school[, including any trips from school to other locations related to the educational mission of the school, such as school-sponsored field trips, and back to school.”] Put differently, one might justifiably infer that students on field trips and/or being transported to and from athletic contests almost always depart from and return to the school location at the beginning and end of such transportation.
Mielke v. Laidlaw Transit, Inc., 102 F.Supp.2d 988, 992 (N.D.Ill.2000), essentially adopted the above interpretation of the term “to or from school” in the MCA and reasoned that, categorically, “school bus operation” (which is the Secretary’s regulatory term, meaning “the use of a school bus to transport school children and/or school personnel from home to school and from school to home,”49 C.F.R. § 390.5), is outside of the Secretary’s jurisdiction and thus is not encompassed by the FLSA’s motor carrier exception. Specifically, the Mielke court concluded that “the phrase ‘to and from school’ includes transportation to or from school sponsored events.” 102 F.Supp.2d at 990 (citation omitted).
In reaching its conclusion that school bus drivers who drove on so-called “charter trips” were entitled to overtime notwithstanding the FLSA’s motor carrier exception, the Mielke court flatly rejected defendant’s argument that the MCA’s exception for “a motor vehicle transporting only school children and teachers to or from school” applied “only to tariff, licensing, and rate regulations” governing motor carriers, and not to the Secretary’s authority to prescribe school bus drivers’ “qualifications and maximum hours of service.”Id.
At the time the case at bar was filed in June 2006, Mielke was the sole opinion by a federal court interpreting and harmonizing the FLSA motor carrier exception with the MCA’s exclusion from the Secretary’s authority “a motor vehicle transporting only school children and teachers to or from school.”In Mielke, the former gave way to the latter and school bus drivers were deemed by the court entitled to overtime pay under the FLSA.
There is now a second case elucidating this somewhat convoluted statutory and regulatory regime treating school bus drivers’ entitlement to overpay pay under the FLSA. Dauphin v. Chestnut Ridge Transportation, Inc., 544 F.Supp.2d 266 (S.D.N.Y.2008). In Dauphin, the court declined to follow Mielke and reached a contrary conclusion, namely, that the FLSA motor carrier exception potentially applied to school bus drivers (essentially on a week-by-week, employee-by-employee basis, see 544 F.Supp.2d at 275 (“However, because this testimony fails to establish whether interstate travel was part of either plaintiff’s job duties during the entire period at issue in this litigation, the Court cannot determine whether the motor carrier exemption applies to them for all the relevant workweeks.”)). Thus, the motor carrier exception would exonerate the defendant in Dauphin provided that it could show “either that the activities of the individual plaintiffs involved interstate travel of a character that was more than de minimis or that interstate travel was a ‘natural, integral and … inseparable part’ of the position plaintiffs held.”Id.
Specifically, the Dauphin court concluded, contrary to Mielke, that the limitation on the Secretary’s jurisdiction to regulate “school bus operations” had no bearing on the Secretary’s ability to set “qualifications and maximum hours of service” for school bus drivers who operated school buses in interstate commerce. Id. at 272.That is, the court reasoned that § 13506‘s limitation on the Secretary’s jurisdiction applies only to the economic and licensing authority (found in Subtitle IV of the MCA), and not to the issue of qualifications and maximum hours of service (found in Subtitle VI of the MCA).Id. (citing Bilyou v. Dutchess Beer Distribs., Inc., 300 F.3d 217, 229 (2d Cir.2002)).
Dauphin readily acknowledged that, consistent with the statutory language in the MCA, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations except from certain regulations “[a]ll school bus operations,” pursuant to 49 C.F.R. § 390.3(f).See 544 F.Supp.2d at 274. Nevertheless, the court concluded that this regulatory exclusion is not an indication that the Secretary does not have the authority to regulate school bus transportation; rather, it concluded, the exclusion reflects the Secretary’s determination that regulating home-to school and school-to-home transportation is not necessary for public safety. Id. (citing 53 Fed.Reg. 18,043 (May 19, 1988)).
I have carefully considered the conflicting approaches of the only two federal courts to have examined this awkward statutory regime. To be sure, Mielke’s approach is fully consistent with the well-settled doctrine that FLSA exemptions and exceptions are to be construed narrowly against the employer seeking to assert them, e.g., Arnold v. Ben Kanowsky, Inc., 361 U.S. 388, 392, 80 S.Ct. 453, 4 L.Ed.2d 393 (1960) (citing Mitchell v. Kentucky Fin. Co., 359 U.S. 290, 295, 79 S.Ct. 756, 3 L.Ed.2d 815 (1959)). Nonetheless, I am persuaded that some deference is owed to the Secretary’s interpretation of his authority, acquiesced in by the Department of Labor, see29 C.F.R. § 782.2(a), to regulate the qualifications and hours of service of interstate school bus drivers. Furthermore, I am persuaded by Judge Stein’s analysis in Dauphin that the broadly-worded exception set forth in the MCA does not extend to the qualifications and hours of service of interstate school bus drivers employed by motor carriers within the jurisdiction of the Secretary. Accordingly, as in Dauphin, and contrary to Mielke, I conclude that the motor carrier defense is potentially applicable here.
Nevertheless, again as in Dauphin, the motor carrier exception defense cannot be applied on this record as a matter of law. Because an employee’s exempt status is an affirmative defense to a claim for non-payment at an overtime rate, the employer bears the burden of proving the exemption by clear and convincing evidence. Stricker v. Eastern Off Road Equip., Inc., 935 F.Supp. 650, 654 (D.Md.1996). Viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the evidence in the record shows that fewer than two interstate trips per year, on average, were worked by the employees in the First Student “charter pool” during the pendency of defendant’s contracts in Maryland. Moreover, as disclosed during the hearing in this case, each such driver seems to have had the option whether to accept an assignment to operate a vehicle outside of Maryland. See Dauphin, 544 F.Supp.2d at 274-76. Thus, to paraphrase Dauphin”whether the activities of [First Student’s] [former] drivers involve[d] interstate transportation of passengers in a way that would bring them within the scope of the motor carrier exemption from the FLSA” cannot be determined as a matter of law. Id. (alterations added).
Accordingly, I conclude that, as a matter of law, although the Secretary of Transportation is authorized to regulate the qualifications and hours of service of those members of the plaintiff class who volunteered for the “charter pool,” genuine disputes of material fact preclude a determination as a matter of law whether the FLSA motor carrier exception applies to any particular member of the plaintiff class for any particular work week. Therefore, as to the motor carrier exception, plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment is denied, and defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part.”