It happens every year: I read a decision from a federal judge about the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and shake my head that it actually took litigation to resolve such an obvious question. It is only March, but 2015 already is no different. A recent decision by a federal district judge in New York compelled me to bring back our periodic Captain Obvious posting.
As I said last year, sometimes I wonder if Captain Obvious or his Midwestern cousin Mr. Obvious would make good judges. A recent case out of the Southern District of New York makes me think that one of them could have more easily handled what can only be seen as a completely unnecessary case and decision. In that case, individuals who performed community service as a condition of a deferred prosecution agreement sued the City of New York claiming that they were somehow “employees” for purposes of the FLSA. That’s right—people who had to perform community service to avoid criminal convictions tried to make crime pay.
The district court agreed that the individuals certainly were not “volunteers” under the FLSA, because they had no “civic, humanitarian, or charitable reasons” for performing work for the City. However, the Court disagreed with the plaintiffs’ conclusion that this somehow transformed them into “employees” under the FLSA. In the most obvious decision of the year (so far), the Court ruled that the plaintiffs could not be employees because they did not perform the work “for the purpose of enabling them to earn a living,” and granted the City’s motion to dismiss the case.
Like many states, New York permits individuals charged with minor criminal offenses to defer prosecution by agreement of the parties if they “perform services for a public or not-for-profit corporation, association, institution or agency.” Under New York law, defendants must have “consented to the amount and conditions of such service.” Successful completion of the community service leads to dismissal of the charges and avoids criminal convictions. Each of the plaintiffs performed their required community service, but then sued the City claiming that they were “employees” who were due wages for performing that very same service.
Ultimately, the Court rightly concluded that just because the plaintiffs did not fall within a specific FLSA exemption, like public service volunteers, did not mean that they were employees entitled to protection under the Act. Under the totality of the circumstances, the Court found (again, obviously) that people who perform community service as an express condition of a deferred prosecution agreement are not doing so “for the purpose of enabling them to earn a living,” or to receive financial compensation of any kind. The Court analogized plaintiff’s situation to those of inmates – a not too far off comparison - who also (obviously) do not have an employment relationship with the prison.
Sometimes it doesn’t take a law degree to do this stuff. Congratulations Judge Furman of the Southern District of New York. You win my unofficial award for the Most Obvious FLSA Decision of 2015 (So Far…).