Federal court issues ruling on motor carrier act exemption

A federal district court in Kansas has issued a ruling on an important issue relating to the motor carrier act (“MCA”) exemption.  The MCA exemption provides that overtime pay is not required for “any employee with respect to whom the Secretary of Transportation has power to establish qualifications and maximum hours of service.”  Traditionally, this meant that anyone who drove, loaded or rode in a vehicle weighing more than 10,000 pounds was exempt from overtime pay.  However, in 2008 Congress narrowed the MCA exemption with the enactment of the SAFETEA-LU Technical Corrections Act (“TCA”). Section 306(a) of the TCA provides that “Section 7 of the [FLSA]…shall apply to a covered employee notwithstanding section 13(b)(1) of that Act.”  Section 306(c) of the TCA provides that a “covered employee” is an employee of a motor carrier whose job, “in whole or in part,” affects the safe operation of vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.  Thus, in “mixed fleet” cases where a worker drove both large and small vehicles (or a small vehicle with a trailer attached), the court must decide whether such a circumstance satisfies the language of the TCA and takes the worker outside of the MCA exemption.

A former employee of Doctor’s, Inc. sued the company alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act for unpaid overtime.  Doctor’s is a lawn service company and the plaintiff was an irrigation technician.  The worker’s duties included driving and transporting equipment on a truck and/or trailer to job sites.The parties agreed that the plaintiff almost exclusively drove a 2007 Ford F-150 truck weighing 8,900 pounds during his employment. But plaintiff also drove the F-150 hooked to a trailer with a combined weight that likely exceeded 10,000 pounds.  The plaintiff admitted to driving the F-150 “pull[ing] a trailer for about six weeks out of the year, or at most from October to December.” The defendant claimed that plaintiff drove the F-150 pulling a trailer during 18 weeks of all the weeks worked. Regardless, the parties did not dispute that plaintiff sometimes drove the F-150 without the trailer within the course of his duties.  The court stated that the “key inquiry is whether defendants have met their burden by showing plaintiff drove a motor vehicle with a gross weight of 10,001 pounds or more. If yes, then the MCA exemption applies and defendants did not have to pay overtime in accordance with the FLSA. If not, then the TCA small vehicle exception applies to exclude plaintiff from the MCA exemption and places him within the FLSA’s coverage as a covered employee.”  The Court concluded that “[t]he burden lies with the employer to establish that the MCA exemption applies and that the TCA does not. The court finds that defendants have not met their burden as they acknowledge that plaintiff drove a noncommercial vehicle (the F-150 without a trailer) more than half the time he was employed with Doctor’s.”

This opinion is important because it shows that in instances where a worker drove a truck with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less, the worker will only be subject to the MCA exemption if employer shows that the worker was exclusively pulling a trailer while driving the truck.  If the worker regularly drove the truck without the trailer, the employer cannot meet this burden and the MCA exemption will not apply.  This is consistent with the Department of Labor’s field bulletin 2010-2, which it issued after the enactment of the TCA.  In the bulletin, the DOL states that “[e]ffective June 6, 2008, the [MCA exemption] does not apply to a driver…in any workweek in which their work affects the safe, interstate operation of certain motor vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.”  It further states that the DOL “will continue to use the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross combination vehicle weight rating in the event that the vehicle is pulling a trailer.”  This language shows that the GCVW rating will be used “in the event” the vehicle is pulling a trailer – when it is not, the GVWR is used.  The district court’s decision in the Crookston case is consistent with the DOL’s guidance and is a correct interpretation of the TCA.