Doctrine Of Practical Continuity Tested Again In Case Involving FLSA Motor Carrier Exemption

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I have always been interested in the Motor Carrier Act (MCA) exemption of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 USC 213(b)(1), especially in the doctrine of “practical continuity” which is one of the ways that interstate commerce is determined and have defended a number of cases where we had to rely on practical continuity for the interstate commerce prong of this tri-partite element exemption. In a quirky case involving this concept, the US Supreme Court declined to take a case involving truck drivers in Wisconsin who claimed that, as short-haul drivers, they were not involved in interstate commerce and were therefore non-exempt and due overtime. The case is entitled Burlaka et al. v. Contract Transport Services LLC, and issued originally from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The workers were called “spotters” and they worked for one of the clients of Contract Transport Services. These employees’ duties consisted of transporting loaded/empty truck trailers for short distances at the client’s facilities. There were goods that had been transported interstate in these trucks, but the trucks themselves never travelled across state lines and, in fact, drove, at most, a few miles. The appellate federal court, however, held that these drivers could be “reasonably expected to drive intrastate routes that were part of a continuous interstate journey,” meaning they were in the stream of interstate commerce and therefore came within the Motor Carrier Act exemption.

In order for intrastate drivers to be part of interstate commerce, there must be a persistent intent that the goods they are hauling were destined for interstate shipment and the drivers argued there was no such evidence. They claimed that the Company “failed to prove the plaintiffs’ intrastate movements had any link to the subsequent interstate movement of products, so as to subject the plaintiffs to the jurisdiction of the secretary of transportation.” The Seventh Circuit, however, found that the evidence showed that 20% of the goods going through the Green Bay facility were either coming from or destined for a different state.

As Judge (now Justice) Barrett wrote, “these facts plainly demonstrate that at least some spotters drove trailers carrying finalized goods destined for out-of-state delivery. Such a service, even if purely intrastate and interrupted briefly, would nevertheless constitute ‘driving in interstate commerce’ because it would be part of the goods’ continuous interstate journey.”

The Judge also rejected the plaintiffs’ theory on the lack of interstate movement by observing that “the plaintiffs seem to imagine that a continuous journey must resemble a relay race, in which the next driver immediately picks up exactly where the other left off. But that is neither how interstate shipments work nor what the MCA requires.”

The Takeaway

Truck drivers often earn pretty good money, a fairly high hourly wage, so an overtime action, especially by a class of these workers, can lead to astronomical damages. Management side practitioners must be aware that merely because drivers do not leave their State does not foreclose a MCA defense. I always look for the connecting links in interstate travel in these cases, looking for evidence of the “practical continuity” of the goods in question, as the interstate commerce prong is often the most difficult to establish.

Finding that link is, simply, the difference between winning and losing…

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