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Summary Judgment granted in oilfield overtime case

A federal court in Houston recently issued a ruling in an oilfield overtime case. Norman v. QES Wireline, LLC, No. 4:16-cv-02396 (S.D. Tex., Aug. 30, 2019).  In Norman, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the motion for summary judgment filed by the defendant be granted, and this recommendation was adopted by the district court. In Norman, the plaintiff filed the lawsuit against the defendant QES Wireline for overtime pay violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) whereby it was alleged that the defendant misclassified its filed engineers as exempt and failed to pay them overtime. The defendant is a wireline service company in the oil and gas industry. It employs wireline operators and engineers. The defendant is registered with the DOT as a motor carrier to carry oil field equipment and hazardous materials. 

At issue in the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was whether the workers were exempt from overtime pay under the Motor Carrier Act (“MCA”) exemption.  The MCA exemption provides that overtime pay is not required for “any employee with respect to whom the Secretary of Transportation has power to establish qualifications and maximum hours of service.”  Traditionally, this meant that anyone who drove, loaded or rode in a vehicle weighing more than 10,000 pounds was exempt from overtime pay.  However, in 2008 Congress narrowed the MCA exemption with the enactment of the SAFETEA-LU Technical Corrections Act (“TCA”). Section 306(a) of the TCA provides that “Section 7 of the [FLSA]…shall apply to a covered employee notwithstanding section 13(b)(1) of that Act.”  Section 306(c) of the TCA provides that a “covered employee” is an employee of a motor carrier whose job, “in whole or in part,” affects the safe operation of vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.  What this means in layman’s terms is that if a worker drives vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds but also regularly drives vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds when performing his job, he is not exempt under the motor carrier exemption, and thus would be entitled to overtime.   

Under recent 5th Circuit caselaw (which this author believes was wrongly decided), it is supposedly the plaintiffs’ burden to show that they fall under the TCA’s exception to the MCA exemption. The plaintiffs cited to four exhibits in support of their argument that they were not subject to the MCA exemption, which the Court addressed as follows: 

  1. A declaration from one of the plaintiffs’ counsel that provided data showing each plaintiff’s VIN number, which, in turn, recorded the vehicles GVWR. The Court said that this failed to carry the plaintiffs’ TCA burden because the VIN and GVWR sections on the data were blank and the only GVWR inputs associated with some plaintiffs are GVWR’s that exceed the 10,001 pound. Accordingly, these vehicles are not TCA eligible; 
  2. A declaration from another individual, which failed to specify the dates a TCA eligible vehicle was driven or worked on; failed to state what type of vehicle was used for a “hotshot” run; failed to state why hotspot is more than de minimis; and failed to state if the vehicles carried hazardous materials or had a trailer attached to it. As such, a reasonable juror would be unable to conclude that the plaintiffs worked on a TCA-eligible vehicle on a more than de minimis basis;
  3. A declaration that again, fails for the same reasons as the declaration in number 2. The Court said that the plaintiffs have failed to cite other evidence in support of the TCA burden. Given this, the Court found that the plaintiffs are exempt from the FLSA under the MCA exemption and the plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden establishing that they fell into the TCA exemption to the MCA exemption; and 
  4. Lastly, another lawsuit was filed against the defendant in the District of New Mexico alleging violations of the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act (“NMMWA”), which was consolidated with this current case. The plaintiff in the New Mexico lawsuit failed to attend his deposition and he failed to respond to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the NMMWA claims. A district court can dismiss an action “[f]or failure of the plaintiff to prosecute or to comply with these rules or any order of court.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b). The Court then recommended that this plaintiff be dismissed for his failure to properly prosecute this case. 

Taking all the facts and circumstances at hand, the Court recommended that the summary judgment motion be granted. On September 25, 2019, Senior District Judge Sim Lake signed an order adopting the magistrate’s recommendations, and entered a final judgment in favor of the defendant.  The significance of this case cannot be understated – it is important to know the intricacies of the FLSA and whether certain workers fall under certain exemptions. Because the burden rests on employees to show that they fall outside of the Motor Carrier Act exemption’s reach, it is critical that plaintiffs in such cases take discovery from the defendant which forces the defendant to identify with specificity (via VIN number, make, model, Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, etc.) all vehicles that were driven by the plaintiffs.  If you are an oilfield worker and have questions regarding your overtime pay and are unsure if you meet an exemption, call an attorney today. Josh Borsellino is a Texas attorney who understands the rules and regulations of the FLSA. He offers free consultations to assess whether workers have a viable overtime claim. Call him today at 817.908.9861 or 432.242.7118.