In a much and long anticipated ruling, the Fifth Circuit in Coffin v. Blessey Marine Services, Inc., No. 13-20144 (5th Cir. Nov. 13, 2014), has held as a matter of law that vessel-based tankermen (specially trained/experienced deckhands who handle the loading/unloading of liquid petro-chemical cargos on tank barges) are seaman, thus exempting them from the overtime pay provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) (29 U.S.C. §§201-219), which exempts from the overtime provisions “any employee employed as a seaman.” 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(6).
In Coffin, a group of eleven tankermen (the only eleven plaintiffs who joined a provisional FLSA class certified by the district court) asserted claims for overtime pay under the FLSA. The plaintiffs asserted that although they were assigned to/lived on unit tow vessels (i.e. a tug and barge unit) and although the vast majority of their work (19 of 20 specifically delineated duties) was indisputably seaman’s duties, the actual loading/unloading of the liquid cargos associated duties, which defined their unique status as tankermen (as opposed to deckhands, wheelmen, etc.) were non-seaman duties thus rendering them eligible for FLSA overtime pay. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued (and the district court agreed) that the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Owens v. SeaRiver Maritime, Inc., 272 F.3d 698 (5th Cir. 2001) – which held that a former vessel-based tankerman who was reassigned as a shore-based tankermen, and who was no longer assigned to a vessel and no longer attended on voyages, was not a seaman under the FLSA – controlled their case.
The district court denied summary judgment on the tankermen’s alleged seamen status, and Blessey Marine took an interlocutory appeal.
The Fifth Circuit, reversed and rendered judgment in Blessey Marine’s favor, holding that the tankermen were seaman on the following bases:
Department of Labor (DOL) regulation 29 C.F.R. §783.31, which outlines the criteria for seaman status as follows:The court held that use of the term “ordinarily” suggest that no hard-and-fast, black-and-white definition of a “seaman” under the FLSA applies; rather, ad hoc “flexibility,” depending on the circumstances, is the rule for determining seaman status under the FLSA.
[A]n employee will ordinarily be regarded as “employed as a seaman” if he performs, as master or subject to the authority, direction, and control of the master aboard a vessel, service which is rendered primarily as an aid in the operation of such vessel as a means of transportation, provided he performs no substantial amount of work of a different character.
Owens does not create a per se rule than any and all loading/unloading of liquid cargo renders an employee a non-seaman for FLSA purposes:
[W]e always consider the factual context when deciding whether an employee is exempt. While the DOL regulations suggest that in many cases loading and unloading duties are nonseaman work, we recognized [in Owens] that such a rule cannot be categorical in the light of the DOL’s crucial qualification that the application of the seaman exemption depends upon the character of the work [an employee] actually performs and not on what it is called or the place where it is performed.
The court recognized that it had previously rejected evidence in Owens - similar in part to evidence offered by Blessey Marine – that tankermen’s loading/unloading duties relate to “the operation of such vessel as a means of transportation” (insofar as improper loading/unloading can affect safe vessel navigation) on the basis that this attenuated link would improperly render many unequivocally shore-based employees seaman for FLSA purposes. However, reiterating the theme of flexibility, the court noted that such evidence may be relevant in different circumstances: “Although the evidence in Owens was insufficient to suggest that loading and unloading assisted the vessel’s operation, we did not categorically reject the relevance of such evidence in other cases, particularly when the work in question is performed by a member of the vessel’s crew.”
Accordingly, because Owens was not dispositive; because the tankermen in Coffin were undisputedly assigned to the unit tow vessels on which they worked – i.e. they ate, slept, and performed deckhand duties, at the captain’s direction, on specifically assigned vessels for specific voyages; and because their loading/unloading duties affected the navigational safety of their vessels, the plaintiffs were seamen.
The Coffin decision is obviously a specific victory for employers of vessel-assigned tankermen, but it also provides a helpful – and expressly flexible, fact-bound framework – for other maritime employers in general to determine whether and to what extent their employees may be covered by the FLSA. It will be interesting to see how the Fifth Circuit’s maritime FLSA jurisprudence develops in the wake of Coffin, and what if any other niche maritime job descriptions do or do not fall within the FLSA.