In a recent ruling, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s order granting summary judgment in which the district court held that an employee may be exempt from overtime under Colorado’s motor carrier exemption even when the employee does not actually travel out of state. Combs v. Jaguar Energy Services, LLC, No. 16-1250 (March 31, 2017).

Factual Background

Michael Combs, a member of a three to five person crew responsible for transporting supplies to assigned work sites, filed suit against his employer, Jaguar Energy Services, LLC, alleging violations of the overtime hour provision under Colorado Minimum Wage Order Number 33. Combs worked out of Jaguar’s Colorado office, which sent approximately 15 percent of its crews to out-of-state work sites, but Combs never traveled outside of Colorado in connection with his employment. Colorado’s Minimum Wage Order require overtime payments to employees in specified industries, and Combs argued no relevant exemption applied to his employment. Jaguar argued, however, that Combs fell within Colorado Minimum Wage Order Number 33’s exemption for “interstate drivers, driver helpers, loaders or mechanics of motor carriers.”

The District Court’s Analysis

The district court granted Jaguar’s motion for summary judgment based on its application of the “last antecedent canon,” noting that the word “interstate” in the Colorado Minimum Wage Order’s motor carrier exemption immediately precedes only the term “drivers,” and determined that the interstate limitation did not apply to driver helpers, loaders, or mechanics of motor carriers. The district court held that, as a driver helper and loader of a motor carrier, Combs was exempt from overtime requirements under Colorado law irrespective of whether he traveled across state lines as part of his job.

In addition to its consideration of the last antecedent cannon, the district court also applied the rationale applied by other courts construing the federal Motor Carrier Act (MCA) exemption to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to interpret the Colorado Minimum Wage Order’s reference to “interstate” to apply to Combs. The district court reasoned that other courts considering the MCA exemption have applied that exemption to employees engaged in activities affecting interstate commerce, regardless of whether the employees actually traveled interstate or whether interstate travel made up a significant portion of the employer’s business. Because Combs, as a driver helper and loader, engaged in activities affecting interstate commerce, the district court determined Combs was exempt under Colorado law.

The Tenth Circuit’s Decision

Though the Tenth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s application of the last antecedent canon, it observed that no case law supported Combs’s reading of the Colorado Minimum Wage Order in which the term “interstate” modified “driver helpers, loaders or mechanics.” The Tenth Circuit then considered the district court’s alternative rationale that Combs’s job duties were “interstate” by applying an expansive understanding of interstate activity used in connection with the MCA exemption. Under this alternative rationale, the Tenth Circuit observed that its precedent supported both the general point that judicial constructions of the MCA exemption properly inform the interpretation of analogous exemptions under the Colorado Minimum Wage Order and that the interstate activity required by the applicable exemption under the FLSA and the Colorado Minimum Wage Order need not constitute a major portion of the job. The Tenth Circuit observed that, in other cases, it had concluded that the Colorado Minimum Wage Order’s exemption for interstate drivers should be read in harmony with the meaning of interstate commerce under the MCA exemption to the FLSA.

Based on its consideration of the MCA exemption to the FLSA, the Tenth Circuit determined that Combs, as a driver helper or loader, was exempt from overtime under the Colorado Minimum Wage Order. The Tenth Circuit further observed that it was irrelevant whether interstate shipments constituted a major portion of Combs’s workload because even a minimal number of loads in interstate commerce are sufficient to qualify the work as interstate for purposes of the MCA exemption.

Key Takeaways

Employers with operations involving the “for hire” or private driving of freight in Colorado should find the Jaguar decision reassuring. The Tenth Circuit has clearly aligned the MCA exemption under the Colorado Minimum Wage Orders with the MCA exemption under the FLSA to provide a clear regulatory framework for the exempt status of drivers, loaders and driver’s helpers in that jurisdiction.