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Home » Exemptions » S.D.Fla.: Contractor Engaged in Heavy-Duty Cleaning of Airplanes Not Air-Carrier Exempt Under Railway Labor Act (RLA)

S.D.Fla.: Contractor Engaged in Heavy-Duty Cleaning of Airplanes Not Air-Carrier Exempt Under Railway Labor Act (RLA)

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Roca v Alphatech Aviation Services, Inc.

In this case, an employee sued his employer, a company that provided heavy-duty cleaning of airplanes, alleging failure to pay overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The case was before the court on the defendant cleaning company’s motion for summary judgment. Specifically, the defendant asserted that it was entitled to the air-carrier exemption under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), because its work involved cleaning airplanes pursuant to contracts with air carriers covered that were covered by the exemption. The court disagreed and denied the defendant’s motion.

Describing the facts relevant to its inquiry, the court explained:

Alphatech specializes in heavy-duty cleaning of airplanes operated by commercial and freight airlines. In addition to cleaning airplane interiors and exteriors, Alphatech personnel replace components, perform light maintenance, preventive maintenance, and carry out related servicing of the aircraft. D.E. 22–1. As explained by Plaintiff, Alphatech employees “leave the plane clean; all the bathrooms, the galleys, everything, seats, carpeting[,] …. leave like the shell of the plane.” D.E. 25–1, at 13:13–16. In other words, cleaning is performed when an aircraft’s cabin is completely disassembled. D.E. 24–1, at 24:25. This work is primarily performed at the Miami International Airport complex, in a facility owned by AAR Aircraft Services (“AAR”), though Alphatech’s administrative work is performed out of its own office space adjacent to the airport. D.E. 22–1, at 35:3–6.

Alphatech does work for various air carriers, maintaining a separate contractual relationship with each. See D.E. 26–4. The work performed for each air carrier is executed in accordance with that air carrier’s maintenance manual. D.E. 24–1, at 9:12–14. Each air carrier specifies the manner in which it desires for its planes to be cleaned. Id. at 17:17–18. Alphatech employees sometimes work on the same exact model plane for two different air carriers and nevertheless perform their assignments differently, in accordance with each air carrier’s manual for that air craft. Id. at 17:19–22. The air carriers separately contract with AAR to inspect and certify the work that Alphatech performs. Id. at 15:10–13, 16:15–19. AAR “professors” are also responsible for administering the air carrier-specific training that Alphatech personnel must receive before servicing an aircraft. The air carrier representatives “walk [through the plane], they turn around, and they leave.” D.E. 15:9–10. Defendant Brullo testified that he could not remember the names of any air carrier supervisors because they change all the time, coming and going with the particular aircrafts that Alphatech personnel service. D.E. 23–1, at 29:19–22.

Giving an overview of the air-carrier exemption, and concluding that the defendant could not satisfy its burden to demonstrate the applicability of same, the court stated:

The question presented by this Motion is whether Plaintiff is an “employee of a carrier by air” for purposes of the FLSA’s air carrier exemption. Under the FLSA, employers are required to pay their employees at overtime rates for work in excess of 40 hours per week. See
29 U.S.C. § 207. However, certain classes of employers are exempt from this overtime requirement. Thus, the air carrier exemption removes from coverage “any employee of a carrier by air subject to the provisions of Title II of the Railway Labor Act.” Id. § 213(b)(3). Title II of the Railway Labor Act (“RLA”), in turn, covers “every common carrier by air …, and every air pilot or other person who performs any work as an employee or subordinate official of such carrier or carriers, subject to its or their continuing authority to supervise and direct the manner of rendition of his service.” 45 U.S.C. § 181.

Defendants have failed to show that Plaintiff is exempt from overtime coverage. The application of an exemption under the FLSA is an affirmative defense on which the employer has the burden of proof. Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, 417 U.S. 188, 196–97, 94 S.Ct. 2223, 41 L.Ed.2d 1 (1974). The Eleventh Circuit has found that Title II of the RLA “is certainly unambiguous” in scope, Valdivieso v. Atlas Air, 305 F.3d 1283, 1287 (11th Cir.2002), yet Defendants urge the Court to find that Plaintiff qualifies as an air-carrier employee under a two-pronged conjunctive test promulgated by the National Mediation Board (“NMB”)2 in cases where the employer does not itself fly aircraft. Plaintiff no more satisfies this two-part test than she does the plain text of the subject exemption. Under the NMB’s two-pronged conjunctive test, an employee is covered by the air-carrier exemption if: (1) the nature of the work is that traditionally performed by employees of air carriers (the “function” test); and (2) the employer is directly or indirectly owned or controlled by or under common control with an air carrier (the “control” test). Verrett v. The Sabre Grp., 70 F.Supp.2d 1277, 1281 (N.D.Okla.1999). Both prongs must be satisfied in order for the RLA exemption to apply. Here, neither prong is satisfied.

Discussing each prong in more detail, and finding that defendant here could satisfy neither prong, the court reasoned:

1. Function Test

Defendants have not shown that the work performed by Alphatech employees is of the sort traditionally performed by air-carrier employees. Indeed, Defendants’ own witnesses have severely undercut their position. Mr. Pichardo testified that the air carriers hire outside contractors to perform the sort of heavy-duty cleaning work performed by Alphatech. When Alphatech works on an aircraft, it does so for an extended period of time, rather than between scheduled flights. In fact, Alphatech’s witnesses repeatedly clarified at deposition that the company’s work is not at all akin to the rapid cabin cleanup performed by air carrier personnel between flights. Indeed, Defendants have not presented any evidence tending to show that the work performed by Alphatech is ever performed by air-carrier employees, let alone that it is “traditionally” performed by those workers.

The RLA’s definition of a “carrier” sheds additional light on what should be considered work traditionally performed by carrier employees. Under the RLA, the term “carrier” includes actual carriers as well as “any company … which operates any equipment or facilities or performs any service (other than trucking service) in connection with the transportation, receipt, delivery, elevation, transfer in transit, refrigeration or icing, storage, and handling of property transported.” 45 U.S.C. § 151. The focus, then, tends to be on companies performing the auxiliary functions of loading, unloading, and shipping to and from carriers’ depots and terminals for the ultimate transportation of whatever is being carried in interstate commerce.

What Defendants have presented in their defense are NMB decisions purporting to hold that aircraft cleaning is a function traditionally performed by air-carrier employees. The Court finds these non-precedential decisions to be distinguishable and otherwise unpersuasive.3 Defendants also rely on Moyano v. Professional Contractors Services, Inc., No. 1:07–cv–22411 (S.D.Fla. Mar. 7, 2008), a case involving mechanic contractors. Moyano offers little analysis under either prong, but does rely on the NMB’s analysis in In re Empire Auto Center, Inc., 33 NMB 3, 2005 WL 3089356 (Oct. 13, 2005). In that case, the employees also worked for an independent contractor and performed their tasks according to maintenance manuals provided by the air-carrier clients. 2005 WL 3089356, at *6. However, Empire’s chief financial officer testified that Empire employees performed maintenance work identical to maintenance work performed by aircraft employees employed by commercial air carriers. Alphatech’s owner, by contrast, acknowledges that the work performed by Alphatech is traditionally contracted out by the air carriers. Moreover, the nature of the work at issue in Empire does not at all appear to be similar to the work Plaintiff performed while at Alphatech. Empire’s employees all fell into one of four categories: exhibit air frame and power plant mechanic; non-destructive test technician; aircraft sheet metal technician; and aircraft avionics and electrical mechanic. Id. at 10. These maintenance and repair operations are similar to the work at issue in Moyano, but not similar to the work performed by Plaintiff. The Court finds that Defendants have failed to show that Plaintiff satisfies the function prong of the NMB test.

2. Control Test

Defendants’ argument that Alphatech’s air carrier clients indirectly control the company’s operations would convert most independent contractors into “carriers” for purposes of the RLA, so long as their clients are air carriers. But entering into a contractual relationship, while perhaps necessary, is certainly not sufficient to satisfy the control test. Courts find that carriers control a contractor’s employees “[w]here the carrier controls the details of the day-to-day process by which the contractor provides services—for example, the number of employees assigned to particular tasks, the employees’ attire, the length of their shifts, and the methods they use in their work.” Cunningham v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., No. 06–3530, 15 Wage & Hour Cas.2d (BNA) 1891, 2010 WL 1223084, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Mar.31, 2010) (citing In re Ogden Aviation Serv., 23 NBM 98, 104 (Feb. 5, 1996)). Defendants insist that the air carriers have ultimate control over Alphatech employees because they have an absolute say over the means by which their aircrafts are cleaned, and because individual Alphatech employees must be approved to work on each given aircraft. But Defendants’ deposition testimony establishes that the air carriers have absolutely no control over what Alphatech pays its employees, when and how they are promoted or given pay raises, which shifts they work, how many hours they work per shift, or how many employees are scheduled to work on an aircraft at once.

Meticulous work instructions and prior approval of an independent contractors’ employees will not convert those employees into a carrier’s employees for RLA purposes. See Dobbs Houses, Inc. v. N .L.R.B., 443 F.2d 1066, 1070 (6th Cir.1971). In Dobbs Houses, the court found that while an airline caterer was “engaged in a business which requires it to please some very meticulous and demanding customers, that fact alone does not establish their ‘control directly or indirectly’ of it or its employees.” Id. at 1072. In so finding, the Sixth Circuit distinguished the case of a catering company employed by a rail carrier under circumstances more indicative of “control.” It found that control was exercised in that case because: the catering company could not do any work for any other client except by the carrier’s explicit permission; the carrier reimbursed the caterer for the total cost of its workers’ wages; the carrier had the explicit right to discharge the caterer’s employees; and the catering employees were directly subject to the carrier’s supervision. Id. at 1071. None of those factors were present in the Dobbs Houses case, and none are present here.

Thus, the court held that the defendant was not an exempt air-carrier and denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Subsequently, the plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment regarding the same issue, and the court granted the motion for virtually identical reasons as stated here.

Click Roca v. Alphatech Aviation Services, Inc. to read the entire Opinion and Order on [Defendant’s Motion for] Summary Judgment. Click Roca v. Alphatech Aviation Services, Inc. to read the Order on [Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial] Summary Judgment.


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