Courts Continue to Rule for Workers in Mixed Fleet Overtime Cases

One of the hot topics over the past few years in overtime litigation has been the Motor Carrier Act (“MCA”) exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which 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.”  Before 2008, this meant that anyone who drove, loaded or rode in a vehicle weighing more than 10,000 pounds was exempt from overtime pay.

However, Congress narrowed the MCA exemption with the enactment of the SAFETEA-LU Technical Corrections Act of 2008 (“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.  The MCA exemption is especially important in cases involving oilfield workers and those in the oil and gas industry, as these workers frequently drive, load or ride in trucks which are at or just below or above the 10,000 pound threshold.  As such, whether these workers are entitled to overtime pay at all could hinge on what test is used to determine the MCA exemption issue.

After the enactment of the TCA in 2008, federal district courts initially struggled with how to reconcile the plain language of the TCA with pre-TCA cases which held that worker could only be subject to the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation (which regulates vehicles over 10,000 pounds) or the Department of Labor (which regulates the FLSA), but not both.  Some courts continued to reach the pre-TCA conclusion, that the MCA exemption should apply so long as the time an employee spends operating commercial motor vehicles is more than de minimis.  Others reached the exact opposite conclusion – that a driver is covered by the FLSA’s overtime-wage provisions when he spends part of a week driving a small vehicle and part driving a large vehicle.

A watershed moment in interpreting the TCA’s meaning (and thus the scope of the MCA exemption), occurred in 2015 when the Third Circuit became the first circuit court to apply the TCA to a mixed fleet case.  In McMaster v. Eastern Armored Services, Inc., 780 F. 3d 167 (3rd Cir. 2015), the Third Circuit found that the plaintiff was a “covered employee” under the plain language of the TCA and thus was not subject to the MCA exemption and was entitled to overtime.  After McMaster, virtually every federal court that has taken up the mixed fleet issue has held that the TCA mandates that a worker driving a vehicle weighing 10,000 pounds or less for anything more than a de minimis amount of time is considered a covered employee under the TCA and thus is not subject to the motor carrier exemption and is entitled to overtime pay.  After McMaster, at least seven federal district court cases (including four in Texas) have addressed whether driving a mixed fleet entitles a worker to overtime pay.  These cases are briefly summarized below.

1. Aikins v. Warrior Energy Servs. Corp., No. 6:13-CV-54, 2015 WL 1221255 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 17, 2015)

In Aikins, a large number of workers filed suit against an oilfield services company for unpaid overtime.  The plaintiffs in Warrior Energy asserted that they drove F-250s without attached trailers “just as much” as they drove F-250s with trailers and/or heavier vehicles while working for the defendant. The defendant sought dismissal, arguing that the workers were exempt from overtime under the MCA. Judge Costa, sitting by designation, denied the motion, holding that by showing that they drove F-250s without attached trailers on a regular basis, “Plaintiffs have established a fact issue concerning whether their driving duties were sufficient to entitle them to FLSA overtime wages.”

2. Roche v. S-3 Pump Service, Inc., Civil Action No. 5:15-CV-268-XR (W.D. Tex. January 4, 2016).

In Roche, workers sued an oilfield services company for overtime violations.  The defendants argued that it should be the actual weight of the vehicle that is determinative when deciding the applicability of the MCA Exemption.  However, the Honorable Xavier Rodriguez, in his opinion, noted that Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division states that the DOL “will continue to use the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross combined vehicle weight rating in the event that the vehicle is pulling a trailer.”  The Court then stated that using the actual weight measurement when deciding the MCA Exemption would be impractical, as “employers would be required to weight trucks and loaded trailers on a regular basis to ensure that they may benefit from the exemption.”  The Court then held that it “will provide deference to the DOL’s interpretation,” meaning it “will apply gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross combined vehicle weight rating in the event that the vehicle is pulling a trailer.”  The Roche Court went on to hold that the plaintiffs, by providing evidence that they drove F-250 pickup trucks with no trailers attached on a weekly basis, had provided sufficient evidence to prove the inapplicability of the MCA Exemption.  As such, the Court granted the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion and denied the defendants’ summary judgment motion on the MCA Exemption, holding it to be inapplicable to the plaintiffs’ claims.

3. Garcia v. Jia Logistics, No. 16-22870 (S.D. Fla. May 30, 2017)

In Garcia, the plaintiff sued his former employer, JIA Logistics (“JIA”), a transportation company, for overtime violations. At the time in question, JIA’s fleet included two vehicles with gross vehicle weight ratings of more than 10,000 pounds and a van with a GVWR of less than 10,000 pounds, and the plaintiff drove all three vehicles while at JIA. JIA claimed that the plaintiff was exempt under the motor vehicle exemption. The Court denied the defendant’s summary judgment motion, concluding that a fact issue existed as to whether the plaintiff spend a de minimis or “more than insubstantial” amount of time driving the smaller vehicle. In so holding, the Court recognized that a worker that drives a vehicle weighing 10,000 pounds or less for anything more than a de minimis or insubstantial amount of time is a covered employee under the TCA and thus is not exempt under the MCA.

4. Twiddy v. Alfred Nickles Bakery, Inc., No. 5:14CV02053, 2017 WL 1199167 at *5 (N.D. Ohio, Mar. 31, 2017)

In Twiddy, current and former deliverymen sued a bakery for FLSA violations. Ex. 2 at p. 1. The defendant claimed the workers were subject to the motor carrier exemption. As in Garcia, the Court denied the Defendant’s summary judgment motion, finding a fact issue existed as to whether the plaintiff spent a de minimis amount of time or performed “some meaningful work” driving a vehicle 10,000 pounds or less. In so doing, Twiddy endorsed the Third Circuit’s holding in McMaster that workers that “in part” drive vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less when performing their jobs are not subject to the MCA exemption.

5. Crookston v. Doctor’s, Inc., No. 16-2071 (D. Kan. June 6, 2017)

In Crookston, a former irrigation technician sued Doctor’s, Inc. for unpaid overtime.  Doctor’s asserted that the MCA exemption barred the plaintiffs’ claim. The plaintiff drove an F-150 – sometimes with a trailer attached and sometimes without a trailer. The Court discussed the TCA as follows:

Courts that have considered the issue of “mixed fleet” vehicles are divided on the proper approach. Some courts hold that the MCA exemption favors coverage of the employee during the course of employment, so long as the time the employee spends operating commercial motor vehicles is more than de minimis; while other courts hold that the small vehicle exception applies because the employee’s work need only “in whole or in part” affect the safety of operation of vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less. See Twiddy v. Alfred Nickles Bakery, Inc., No. 5:14CV02053, 2017 WL 1199167, at *5-6 (N.D. Ohio Mar. 31, 2017) (reviewing both approaches).
The court finds the latter approach more persuasive as it gives the actual language of the TCA its due. Plaintiff drove a small vehicle part of the time he was employed with defendants. The burden lies with the employer to establish that the MCA exemption applies and that the TCA does not. Moore, 2017 WL 1501436 at *9-10. 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. See id. at *10 (“[A]t the summary judgment stage, an employer must provide evidence that its employees exclusively drove vehicles greater than 10,000 pounds during a relevant workweek, or that any work with small vehicles was merely de minimis work.”). 

Thus, the Court denied defendants’ summary judgment motion on the FLSA claim.

6. Moore v. Performance Pressure Pumping Servs., LLC, No. 5:15-CV-346- RCL, 2017 WL 1501436, at *8 (W.D. Tex. Apr. 26, 2017)

In Moore, current and former pumping crewmen filed suit under the FLSA. The crewmen drove and rode in eighteen wheelers as well as F-250 trucks. The defendants claimed that the MCA exemption barred the plaintiffs’ claims.  The Court held “[e]ven in weeks where employees worked on vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds (and thus were subject to the Department of Transportation’s regulations, those employees would still be entitled to overtime if they worked on vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds.” The Court also noted that “at the summary judgment stage, an employer must provide evidence that its employees exclusively drove vehicles greater than 10,000 pounds during a relevant workweek, or that any work with small vehicles was merely de minimis work. The Court, finding that a fact issue existed as to whether the plaintiffs’ use of F-250s was de minimis, denied the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion.

7. Spangler v. Mourik, No. H-16-0349 (S.D. Tex. August 8, 2017)

In a case issued less than three weeks ago, Judge Lake denied the defendants’ summary judgment motion and endorsed the holding in Aikins v. Warrior Energy Servs. Corp., 2015 WL 1221255 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 17, 2015), which Plaintiffs here have relied on heavily. Spangler was a project supervisor for Mourik, an industrial cleaning and remediation company. As the Defendants do here, the defendant in Spangler argued that any work on a vehicle weighing more than 10,000 pounds rendered him subject to the MCA exemption. The Court stated that this argument had been “considered and rejected” in Aikins. After discussing the reasoning and holding of Aikins, the Court found as follows:

The Court agrees with the reasoning and analysis in Aikins and accordingly is not persuaded that Mourik is entitled to summary judgment that the MCA exemption applied to Spangler simply because Spangler testified that he drove vehicles across state lines for Mourik that weighed in excess of 10,000 pounds, and knew that he could be called upon to do so at any time. The court is similarly unpersuaded by Mourik’s argument that Spangler bears the burden of proof on applicability of the TCA exception to the MCA exemption. To establish entitlement to summary judgment, an employer must provide evidence either that its employees exclusively drove vehicles greater than 10,000 pounds during a relevant workweek, or that any work with smaller vehicles was merely de minimis work. 

Finding a fact issue regarding whether the plaintiffs’ work while driving a smaller vehicle was de minimis, the Court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

About the author: Josh Borsellino represents workers across Texas and beyond in unpaid overtime claims.  If you or someone you know works more than 40 hours per week and does not receive overtime pay, visit with an experienced overtime attorney to learn about your legal rights.  Josh provides free consultations on overtime issues, either online through this contact form or by phone at 817.908.9861 or 432.242.7118.