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Fifth Circuit upholds “seamen” exemption and dismisses “day-rate” FLSA collective action suit.

12/3/2014

A wave of FLSA collective (class) actions have been filed against scores of marine shipping and towing companies in the Gulf States for violation of the FLSA. Specifically, these suits claim that the commonly used “day-rate” pay system used for tankermen is improper and the employers owe back overtime pay, liquidated damages, attorneys’ fees and other damages.

Marine companies responded that the tankermen (deckhands specifically trained to handle loading and unloading of cargo) fell under the “seamen” exemption in the FLSA and were, therefore, exempt from the overtime claims made in these collective actions.

In response, plaintiffs pointed to the case of Owens v. SeaRiver Maritime, Inc., 272 F.3d 698 (5th Cir. 2001), a case holding that a land-based tankerman did not qualify for the seamen exemption. Plaintiffs also pointed to DOL regulations indicating that seamen can lose that status if they spend a substantial amount of time (20% or more) performing non-seamen duties, such as loading and unloading cargo.

In one such case, Defendant Blessey Marine Services, Inc. filed a summary judgment motion based on the “seamen” exemption and arguing that Owens should be limited to land-based tankermen and not apply to vessel-based tankermen.

The lower court denied Blessey Marine’s motion holding that Owens found loading and unloading were not seamen duties as a matter of law, and if a tankerman spent more than 20% of his time loading/unloading, that tankerman was not exempt under the “seamen” exemption. Blessey Marine appealed.

In its ruling in Coffin v. Blessey Marine Services, Inc., No. 13-20144 (5th Cir. November 13, 2014), the Fifth Circuit distinguished the Owens case, limiting it to land-based tankermen. In the case of vessel-based tankermen, “loading and unloading was seaman work when done by these vessel-based Plaintiffs” who worked, ate, and slept on board their assigned barges. The Fifth Circuit ordered the lower court to enter judgment in favor of Blessey Marine.

This ruling upholds and strengthens the “seamen” exemption because duties that have been categorized as “non-seamen” work are found to be “seamen’s” work if performed by vessel-based seamen.