Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals: Employees Have Burden of Proof Under New Legislation

09.04.2018

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR FIFTH CIRCUIT HOLDS EMPLOYEES HAVE THE BURDEN OF PROOF UNDER NEW LEGISLATION

This case, Carley v. Crest Pumping Techs., L.L.C., 890 F.3d 575 (5th Cir. 2018), is of import to transportation practitioners and employment professionals in the transportation industry. In this case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently vacated a jury verdict in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas and reversed a magistrate judge’s denial of an employer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. The case is important because it appears to be the first case to articulate the burden of proof under the recently adopted SAFETEA-LU Technical Correction Act (“Corrections Act”). In doing so, the Court made clear that employees suing under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) have the burden of proving that they are excepted from the Motor Carrier Act’s (“MCA”) exemption to FLSA overtime payment requirements. Therefore, when an employer has shown that the MCA exemption applies, an employee must prove that they are excepted from the MCA exemption under the Corrections Act.

BACKGROUND

Scot Carley and Brandon Brown (“Employees”) were employed as cementers by Petitioner Crest Pumping Technologies, L.L.C. (“Crest”). Crest provides downhole cementing and pump down services for complex oil wells. As part of their duties, both of the Employees operated Ford F-350 vehicles in order to carry necessary materials. David Crombie (“Crombie”), the founder and president of Crest, testified that Ford F-350 vehicles have a gross vehicle weight rating (“GVWR”) of 11,500 pounds. Crombie determined the GVWR by examining the doorplate on the vehicles and calling the manufacturer and providing the vehicle’s VIN number. The Employees presented no competent contrary evidence to dispute the GVWR provided by Crombie. At the close of the Employee’s evidence, Crest motioned for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the Employees were subject to the MCA exemption to the FLSA. Crest argued that the only exception to the MCA exemption under the Corrections Act was inapplicable, as the exception only applied to employees operating vehicles with a GVWR of 10,000 pounds or less. The district court denied the motion. At the close of evidence, Crest renewed its motion, which was denied a second time. The district placed the burden to prove inapplicability of the Corrections Act exception on Crest—the employer. As a result, the jury returned a verdict for the Employees, finding that Crest did not prove that the Employees were not except from the exemption from overtime payment. Crest moved for both a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial, but both were denied. Crest timely appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

ARGUMENT

On appeal, Crest challenged the district court’s placement of the burden of proof at trial. Crest argued that the burden should have been placed on the Employees to show that the Corrections Act applied. The Employees should have been required to show that they were not exempted from FLSA overtime payment requirements by the MCA exemption. Crest maintained that the employees were required to produce evidence that the MCA exemption did not apply due to the exception under the Corrections Act. Furthermore, Crest argued that the Employees failed to meet this burden, as they submitted no evidence to prove that the Ford F-350 vehicles had a GVWR of 10,000 or less.

ANALYSIS

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that the FLSA requires an employer to pay overtime compensation to employees working more than forty hours a week. However, certain statutory exemptions may apply and must be given a “fair reading” as opposed to a narrow interpretation. One exemption to the FLSA exempts employees subject to Secretary of Transportation regulations. The intent of this MCA exemption was to ensure that operators of vehicles affecting highway safety were regulated by an entity with a greater understanding of transportation safety concerns. Subsequently, the Corrections Act created a class of vehicle operators to which the MCA exemption does not apply. These non-exempted employees must meet certain requirements to avoid the MCA exemption, one of which is performing “duties on motor vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.” The Corrections Act does not state which party bears the burden of proving the weight of the motor vehicle or whether “weight” refers to GVWR or another measurement of weight.

The Court reasoned that the Employees fulfilled their initial burden of showing the FLSA applied and that Crest likewise fulfilled its burden of showing the MCA exemption applied. In determining who had the subsequent burden of showing the Corrections Act applied, the Court examined the language of the statute. The Corrections Act defined “covered employee” in a statutory subsection under which plaintiffs have the burden of proving FLSA coverage. Furthermore, the Corrections Act is not codified as an exemption, but rather as an exception to an exemption. Therefore, a party arguing for application of the Corrections Act is effectively arguing for application of the FLSA requirements. Drawing this logic from Samson v. Apollo Resources, Inc., 242 F.3d 629 (5th Cir. 2001), the Court determined that the burden of proving the applicability of the Corrections Act is more appropriately placed on the employee. As a result, the district court erred in placing this burden on Crest—the employer.

In regard to the issue of weight, the Court found that the district court properly defined “weight” as GVWR. Due to the statutory history of the Corrections Act, the Court found deference to the United States Department of Labor was appropriate. Specifically, deference to the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division Field Assistance Bulletin (“the Bulletin”) was warranted. The Bulletin, issued in response to the Corrections Act, expressly stated that GVWR should be used to measure vehicle weight. The Employees produced no evidence concerning the GVWR of the Ford F-350 vehicles to contradict the testimony given by Crombie. As a result, the Employees failed to meet their burden of showing that the Corrections Act exception applied.

Due to the fact that the Employees did not meet their burden of proving the Corrections Act exception applied, the MCA exemption effectively exempted them from FLSA overtime requirements. The Court therefore vacated the jury verdict from the Western District of Texas and entered judgment for Crest.

For further information about this case and other transportation and employment issues, contact John F. Fatino, fatino@whitfieldlaw.com. Jackson O’Brien, J.D. candidate, assisted in the drafting of this article.

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