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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.
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.”
With the uptick in FLSA case filings in recent years, a previously rarely litigated issue- whether certain types of workers are volunteers or “employees” subject to FLSA coverage- has increasingly come under judicial scrutiny. And, while case law has long interpreted the FLSA in a liberal manner, with the stated purpose of erring on the side of coverage for workers, two recent cases demonstrate that definition is not without its limits. In the first case, the domestic partner/girlfriend of a Domino’s Pizza store manager helped the manager with his management duties, in the hopes that eventually such efforts would lead to the partner’s advancement within the company. In the second case, an alumni for a public high school served as a mentor to students following his graduation from school. As discussed below, in both cases, the courts employed the “economic reality” test, and held that the workers were volunteers as opposed to employees.
Emanuel v. Rolling in the Dough, Inc.
In the first case, the plaintiff- apparently the girlfriend of the general manager of a Domino’s franchise store- assisted her boyfriend in his duties as the general manager. After the boyfriend’s employment with the defendant ceased, the plaintiff sought renumeration for all of the work she had previously performed on behalf of defendants, while he boyfriend had been employed. Interestingly, it appears from the style of the case that the defendants- who denied that the plaintiff was ever their employee- sought to bring a claim for indemnification/contribution against the boyfriend by impleading him as a third-party defendant. Looking at the totality of the circumstances, the court concluded that she was a volunteer and not an employee under the FLSA. Thus, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Elucidating the relevant facts, the court explained that at some point in 2007, the plaintiff (Emanuel) told her boyfriend that she wanted to work at the store he managed on behalf of the defendants. Apparently, the plaintiff wanted to help with her boyfriend’s effort to become a Domino’s Pizza franchise owner.In response the boyfriend said he’d have to speak to the defendants about Emanuel working at the Elmhurst store. Thereafter, the boyfriend conveyed to Emanuel that defendants “believed your talents can be better utilized somewhere else.” Nonetheless, sometime later, the boyfriend (Shafer) communicated to Emanuel that she could begin working at the Elmhurst store. Significantly, the plaintiff acknowledged that she could not have worked in the store pursuant to the defendants anti-nepotism policy and that defendants would have told her to “get the hell out of my store,” had they known she was performing work in the store.
It was undisputed that neither the defendants, nor plaintiff’s boyfriend or anyone for that matter, ever promised plaintiff any compensation for the work she performed.
Ultimately, the plaintiff’s boyfriend and defendants got into a dispute regarding their agreement about his [plaintiff’s boyfriend’s] compensation, and as a result both plaintiff and her boyfriend ceased working for defendants. Subsequently, she filed the lawsuit, seeking compensation for the approximately 3 years of work she performed on behalf of defendants (and her boyfriend).
Laying out the elements of the “economic reality” test, the court explained:
Courts look to the totality of the circumstances when determining whether an individual is an “employee” under the FLSA and examine the “economic reality” of the working relationship. See, e.g., Vanskike v. Peters, 974 F.2d 806, 808 (7th Cir.1992). Courts have considered a variety of factors when examining the “economic reality” of a purported employment relationship, though none are dispositive or controlling. Secretary of Lab. v. Lauritzen, 835 F.2d 1529, 1534 (7th Cir.1987). Six commonly applied factors are: (1) the nature and degree of the alleged employer’s control as to the manner in which the work is to be performed; (2) the alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending upon his managerial skill; (3) the alleged employee’s investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of workers; (4) whether the service rendered requires a special skill; (5) the degree of permanency and duration of the working relationship; and (6) the extent to which the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business. Id. at 1534–35.
Rejecting the plaintiff’s contention that she was defendants’ “employee,” the court reasoned:
“Here, plaintiff Emanuel advances an absurd position. Emanuel argues that defendant Lindeman’s repeated statement that he would not pay her to work at the Elmhurst store was not a refusal to hire her as an employee, but an offer for her to work for free. Since Emanuel claims to have worked at the Elmhurst store without compensation and without [defendants] forcibly ejecting her from the store or otherwise preventing her from working, it is her position that an employment relationship impliedly exists.” However, noting the no one ever promised plaintiff compensation and that her work likely violated one or more of defendants corporate policies, the court held it was unreasonable for plaintiff to believe she was actually their employee, rather than a volunteer. Thus, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Click Emanuel v. Rolling in the Dough, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order.
Brown v. New York City Dept. of Educ.
In the second case, the plaintiff, Brown, graduated from the New School for Arts and Sciences, a high school that shared space with Banana Kelly. After graduation, Brown maintained ties with Banana Kelly and occasionally came in to visit former teachers. In October 2007, when Plaintiff expressed an interest in mentoring students, the school offered Plaintiff the opportunity to do so at Banana Kelly. Neither Brown nor the school raised the issue of compensation at this time, and neither discussed Brown’s employee status. No one interviewed Brown about his background or qualifications. Thereafter, the plaintiff went to Banana Kelly and continued at the school for more than three years, finally leaving in December 23, 2010, apparently because he was being investigated for inappropriate conduct related to his comments to a freshman student. During his time at the school, with minor exceptions, the plaintiff reported five days a week throughout the academic year, working 7-8 hours per day on a regular basis.
Citing the fact that the plaintiff never submitted to the normal, legal requirements for employment by the Department of Education: application, interview, background check, job classification, and assignment, the court rejected plaintiff’s assertion that he was an employee, because he expected compensation for his services. Although it was undisputed that the defendant told plaintiff that there was not enough money in the budget to pay him, according to the plaintiff, defendant promised that he would attempt to search the budget for the funding.
Again, looking at the “economic realities” and the totality of the facts of the situation, the court held that plaintiff was a volunteer and not an employee, subject to FLSA coverage. Thus, the court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
The court gave the following overview of the analysis applicable to the issue:
Whether one is a volunteer is to be determined “in a common-sense manner, which takes into account the totality of the circumstances surrounding the relationship between the individual providing services and the entity for which the services are provided.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 428;City of Elmendorf, 388 F.3d at 528; Todaro, 40 F.Supp.2d at 230. Accordingly, courts should review “the objective facts surrounding the services performed to determine whether the totality of the circumstances establish volunteer status, or whether, instead, the facts and circumstances, objectively viewed, are rationally indicative of employee status.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 428. The court then examined 2 factors to determine whether the plaintiff was an employee or a volunteer. First, the court considered whether Brown performed the tasks at Banana Kelly for “civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons,” pursuant to 553.101(a).
Looking at this factor, the court reasoned:
One is a volunteer, if motivated by an altruistic sense of civic duty, see Krause, 969 F.Supp. at 276, as opposed to the expectation of compensation, see Rodriguez, 866 F.Supp. at 1019. When the situation is one of mixed motives, “the regulatory definition does not require that the individual be exclusively, or even predominantly, motivated by ‘civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons. Rather, what is required is that the individual must be motivated by civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons, at least in part.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 429 (citing Todaro, 40 F.Supp. at 230); see also Benshoff v. City of Virginia Beach, 9 F.Supp.2d 610, 623 (E.D.Va.1998) (finding that firefighters were volunteers when motivated primarily, but not exclusively, by civic, charitable and humanitarian concerns). Here, Brown accepted Jerome’s offer to mentor, in part, because he wanted “[s]omeone … to stand up, and make a change, and show the kids that we do care.” (Welikson Dec. Ex. C, Brown Dep. at 35:21–22.) He felt that the school needed the change because in his experience as a student, “nobody cared” (id. 35:14–17). This motivation remained unchanged as Brown started performing non-mentorship tasks. Brown testified that he helped with lunch duty, dismissals and escorting students despite his displeasure with being asked because he wanted to be a “team player” and that he “want[ed] to help and [he] care[d].” (38:14–39:5.) He felt obligated because he did not want to “let[ ] the school down.” (id. at 150:20–22.) These statements show a continued civic and charitable intent to improve the environment at Banana Kelly. At the same time, Brown testified that he worked because he believed (“hoped”) that money was forthcoming. (Okoronkwo Dec. Ex. 13 Brown Dep. 231:18–19). Accepting Brown’s acknowledgements, the Court turns to whether, in this mixed motive case, Brown acted at least in part, by the proper humanitarian concerns. See Purdham, 637 F.3d at 429. Plaintiff’s testimony shows that his actions at Banana Kelly, had their source, at least in part, in his concern for what would become of students if he did not show up, and was thus properly motivated.
Next the court looked at whether there was a “promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.101(a). Noting that plaintiff was not compensated, was not offered “under-the-table” compensation, and was not promised compensation, the court concluded that the plaintiff had no reasonable expectation of compensation. Looking at all the circumstances the court concluded that:
There is ample evidence that Brown knew and understood, despite his hopes to the contrary, that he would not be compensated. Brown admitted that he understood that he would not get paid for mentoring. No one led Plaintiff to believe that he would get paid for non-mentoring tasks. Laub testified that he had conversations with Plaintiff in which he relayed to Brown that he was volunteer and intern. Banana Kelly gave him certificates of appreciation that acknowledged his services as an intern and volunteer which Brown accepted without objection. While labels used by the parties do not control the outcome (P. Opp. at 11), the parties’ understanding of their arrangement is a relevant factor in the totality-of-circumstances analysis. See Rodriguez v. Township, 866 F.Supp. 1012, 1020 (S.D.Tex.1994) (declining to hold that the plaintiff was a volunteer in part because both parties understood their relationship as an employment, rather than volunteer, relationship).
Taking all of the circumstances into consideration, the court concluded that the plaintiff was a volunteer.
Click Brown v. New York City Dept. of Educ. to read the entire Opinion and Order.
E.D.Wisc.: Plaintiff Who Helped Set Up Defendants’ Business Was an Employee Subject to FLSA Coverage, Not a Volunteer
Okoro v. Pyramid 4 Aegis
This case was before the Court on the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on a variety of issues. As discussed here, the plaintiff sought a finding that she was entitled to minimum wages under the FLSA as an employee, while the defendants contested that, arguing that any duties she had performed for them were volunteered. The case apparently followed the break-up of the plaintiff from the individual defendant in their romantic relationship. It was undisputed that the plaintiff performed many duties for the defendants- operators of a group home- over the approximate 2 years in question, including obtaining workers compensation insurance, attendance at residential training classes, cleaning and purchasing items for the facility, putting in business processes for the business (i.e. payroll services), marketing, hiring employees on behalf of defendants and other duties necessary for the defendants’ business to operate. While most of these facts were uncontested, the defendants maintained that this work was all volunteered, despite the fact, while the plaintiff asserted she expected to be paid as an employee.
After discussing various tests for employment under the FLSA (i.e. independent contractor vs employee), the court noted that there was no specific test for determining whether someone who performs duties for another is an employee or a volunteer under the FLSA. Thus, the court explained it was constrained only by a flexible “reasonableness” standard that takes into account the totality of the circumstances. The court explained:
In determining whether someone is an employer or a volunteer, this court has not stumbled upon any factored test similar to that of the 6–factor economic realities test used to differentiate independent contractors and employees. Rather, the court finds that the test for employment is governed by a reasonableness standard that takes into account the totality of the circumstances. The court is to review ” ‘the objective facts surrounding the services performed to determine whether the totality of the circumstances’ establish volunteer status, … or whether, instead, the facts and circumstances, objectively viewed, are rationally indicative of employee status.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 428 (quoting Cleveland v. City of Elmendorf, 388 F.3d 522, 528 (5th Cir.2004)). In addition to the “economic reality” of the situation, other factors to consider include whether there was an expectation or contemplation of compensation, whether the employer received an immediate advantage from any work done by the individual, the relationship of the parties, and the goals of the FLSA. See Alamo Found., 471 U.S. at 300–01;
Rutherford Ford Corp. v. McComb, 331 U.S. 722, 730 (1947) (stating that the employer-employee relationship “does not depend on such isolated factors but rather upon the circumstances of the whole activity”); Lauritzen, 835 F.2d at 1534–35). It is the examination of objective indicia and the application of common sense with which this court arrives at its determination of whether the plaintiff here is an employee for purposes of the FLSA.
Applying this test to the facts at bar, the court held that the plaintiff was an employee rather than a volunteer:
According to Okoro, she never agreed to volunteer for Aegis; at all times, she expected to be compensated for her work. Specifically, Okoro expected to be paid $2,000 per month for her work, and in agreeing to defer her compensation until the facility garnered clients, she still worked with the expectation that she would be paid. (Okoro Aff. ¶¶ 4, 7–9.) Battles, while arguing that Okoro was a volunteer, also states that he intended to pay Okoro for her work if she qualified as an administrator and if the business had enough money in the future. (Battles Aff. ¶¶ 6, 25 .) The court notes Battles’s expectation not for the purpose of weighing the parties’ competing assertions (for this would surely contradict the FLSA’s remedial purpose) but to merely highlight that he too contemplated a compensation mechanism for Okoro’s work.
Expectations aside, it is not entirely correct for the plaintiff to assert that the defendants have failed to identify any personal benefit that Okoro purportedly received from her work for Aegis. In his affidavit, Battles avers that when Okoro sold him worker’s compensation insurance for Aegis, she told him “that she wanted to learn the group home business and therefore, she would learn the business by working at Pyramid 4 Aegis for no compensation.” (Battles Aff. ¶ 5.)
This court is not unmindful of any claim that Okoro may have wanted to learn and indeed did learn about the CBRF business. That may certainly have been part of her motivation in providing Battles some assistance in his effort to build the business. However, Battles does not deny that the work Okoro performed on behalf of Aegis conferred an immediate benefit to the company. Thus, the facts in this case stand in stark contrast to those in Walling. In Walling, the lower court’s finding that “the railroads receive[d] no ‘immediate advantage’ from any work done by the trainees” was unchallenged. 330 U.S. 148, 153. Indeed, “the applicant’s work [did] not expedite the company business, but … sometimes [did] actually impede and retard it.” Id. at 150. In other words, the railroad was not receiving any immediate benefit from the training that was being given to the prospective brakemen.
Not so in the case at bar. The evidence here does not demonstrate that the work performed by Okoro on behalf of Aegis interfered in any way with the business of Aegis. To the contrary, the nature of the work that she performed, such as cleaning, picking up prescriptions, appearing in court on behalf of clients at the facility, and calling in hours for caregivers to Paychex, was undeniably of substantial assistance to Aegis. Even more to the point, such work was not akin to the “course of practical training,” which the prospective yard brakemen in Walling received. Id. at 150. One hardly needs to be trained in how to clean a facility, how to pick up prescriptions, and how to call in hours for caregivers.
Additionally, the economic reality of the situation was that Okoro worked for Aegis for a substantial length of time. The length of the “training course” that the prospective brakemen received in Walling was seven or eight days. Id. at 149. By contrast, Okoro worked for Aegis over the course of almost one year.
To be sure, Okoro and Battles had a “personal relationship” over the course of the relevant time period. (Okoro Aff. ¶ 6.) While it may be that at least some of the time Okoro spent at Aegis was to socialize with Battles, that particular matter may speak to the amount of damages to which she is entitled; after all, socialization may not be the equivalent of work. For purposes of Okoro’s motion, it is sufficient to find that, despite her relationship with Battles, she still performed substantial work for Aegis, Aegis reaped a direct and immediate benefit from her work, and she had a reasonable expectation that she would be compensated for her work. In sum, taking into account the totality of the circumstances in this case leads me to conclude that Okoro performed work for Aegis as an employee and not as a volunteer.
The court also noted the duty to interpret the FLSA broadly in favor of coverage, given the FLSA’s remedial purpose:
Finally, it must not be forgotten that, by design, the FLSA’s purpose is “remedial and humanitarian.” Tenn. Coal, Iron & R.R. Co. v. Muscodoa Local No. 123, 321 U.S. 590, 597 (1944), superseded by statute, Portal–to–Portal Act of 1947, Pub.L. No. 80–49, 61 Stat. 86 (1947) (codified as amended at 29 U.S.C. § 254). To effectuate this purpose, the FLSA requires courts to interpret its application broadly. See id. With this in mind, allowing Aegis the benefit of Okoro’s free labor when there existed an expectation of compensation would not comport with the FLSA’s purpose.
Thus, to the extent that the plaintiff’s motion seeks a determination that she worked for Aegis and is therefore entitled to compensation for such work under the FLSA, her motion will be granted. Precisely how much work she performed for Aegis, and for how many hours she should be compensated by Aegis, are matters for trial. It is enough to say that the work she performed for Aegis, at least for purposes of the FLSA, was not as a volunteer, but rather as an employee.
Click Okoro v. Pyramid 4 Aegis to read the entire Decision and Order on Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment.