ml

By Zoe Vermeulen

In the recent case of Halle v. Galliano Marine Service, L.L.C., No. 16-30558, 2017 WL 1399697 (5th Cir. Apr. 19, 2017) the U.S. Fifth Circuit addressed for the first time whether ROV technicians, who are traditionally Jones Act seamen, qualify as seamen under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The Court found that the plaintiff, an ROV technician assigned to an ROV support vessel, was not an FLSA seaman. In reaching its decision, the Court reiterated the important difference between a Jones Act seaman and a seaman for purposes of the FLSA.

Under the Jones Act, the term “seaman” is construed broadly to provide protection for a larger group of individuals. Seamen are exempt from the FLSA, so the term is construed narrowly, to ensure that more workers enjoy the benefits granted by the FLSA. The Court was clear that “the definition of ‘seaman’ in the Jones Act is not equivalent to that in the FLSA.”

The FLSA requires employers to provide overtime pay to any employee who works more than forty (40) hours in a workweek, unless the employee is subject to an exemption. Again, “seamen” are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements. Under the FLSA, an employee is a “seaman” if: (1) the employee is subject to the authority, direction, and control of the master; and (2) the employee’s service is primarily offered to aid the vessel as a means of transportation, provided that the employee does not perform a substantial amount of different work. These criteria are very fact specific.

In Halle, there was a dispute as to whether the plaintiff was subject to the authority, direction, and control of the master of the ROV support vessel. Thus, the first factor was not dispositive. In analyzing the second factor, the Court found that the ROV technician plaintiff lived on the ROV support vessel and operated the ROV, which was attached to the support vessel, to perform industrial tasks in the water. He occasionally communicated GPS coordinates to the captain of the support vessel, but did not otherwise help ensure that the support vessel navigated safely or in any particular manner from point A to point B. The plaintiff did not control the vessel’s path to its intended target, steer, anchor, make any navigational decisions, or take any navigational actions. The plaintiff, and other ROV technicians, could not even see if there were navigational issues affecting the support vessel. Under these facts, the Court found that the plaintiff’s service was not “primarily offered to aid the vessel as a means of transportation.” As the plaintiff – a Jones Act seaman – could not meet the second prong of the test, he could not be a seaman for FLSA purposes.

This case provides valuable guidance to maritime employers in classifying employees for FLSA purposes. Employers should never assume that because a worker qualifies as a Jones Act seaman, he or she will automatically be exempt from the overtime requirements of the FLSA. While both the Jones Act and the FLSA employ the term “seaman,” Halle underscores the different tests for seaman status under these Acts. Litigants are cautioned not to borrow an analysis of this term under one Act for use in the other.

Misclassifying an employee as “exempt” can expose employers to back pay, liquidated damages, and attorneys’ fees. And with a recent increase in FLSA claims, correct employee classification is as critical now as ever.