On November 13, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently held that tankermen are exempt as “seamen” from the overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S.C. §201, et seq.) (“FLSA”).

The case came to the Fifth Circuit on interlocutory appeal of a January 22, 2013, decision from the Houston Division of the U.S.D.C. for the Southern District of Texas.

At the district court, nine tankermen employed by the defendant brought suit alleging that they were misclassified by the defendant as “seamen” and thereby deprived of overtime compensation under the FLSA. Plaintiffs, who work aboard transport barges, argued that loading and unloading duties are not seaman duties under the FLSA, and that because such duties comprise a substantial amount of their work time, they fall outside of the FLSA’s seaman exception and, so, were entitled to overtime compensation. The seamen’s employer moved for summary judgment arguing that as a matter of law loading and unloading duties are seamen’s duties under the FLSA.

The district court held and, the tankermen urged on appeal, that the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Owens v. SeaRiver Maritime Inc., 272 F.3d 698 (5th Cir. 2001) established that loading and unloading a vessel isalways nonseamen work.  The Fifth Circuit rejected this interpretation of Owens.

On appeal, oral argument centered around the “twenty percent rule,” which is a judicial interpretation of the statutory requirement (29 C.F.R. §783.31) that an exempt employee not perform a “substantial amount” of non-seaman work, and its application to vessel based workers. The seamen’s employer sought to distinguish Owens from the case at bar on the grounds that the nine tankermen are vessel based employees whereas Owens was a shore based worker.

The Fifth Circuit first noted that Owens involved a “significantly” different set of facts.  In Owens, the plaintiff “was not a crew member of a tow and not tied to a particular vessel for a voyage.”  Rather, he was a member of SeaRiver’s land-based Strike Team and worked “on unattended or ‘tramp’ barges that were neither towed by SeaRiver boats nor attended by SeaRiver crews.”  By contrast, the tankermen were: (1) members of a unit tow crew, (2) assigned to particular vessels for a voyage, and (3) expected to perform work on barges that were towed by the seamen’s employer’s vessels and crews.

The Fifth Circuit rejected the district court’s rigid application of the 20% rule and concluded that loading and unloading can be seamen’s work if done by vessel-based workers. The Court emphasized that the “context in which work is done can affect whether it is seamen or nonseamen work.” Specifically, “when an individual lives aboard the vessel that he or she loads or unloads,” this living situation will affect the characterization of his or her duties.

The Court further noted:

"[The tankermen’s employer] has produced undisputed evidence evincing that these vessel-based tankermen performed their loading and unloading duties with an eye toward navigation and were required to perform such duties safely so that the vessel could safely operate on inland and oceanic waterways."

Consequently, the Court ruled that the vessel owner’s tankermen are seamen while loading and unloading barges because these duties are integrated within their many other duties. 

The case is Keith Coffin, et al. v. Blessey Marine Services, Incorporated.