2019 is proving to be a busy year in the land of trucking litigation. Whether you are looking at action in the deep south or movements in California (again), if the first quarter is any indication, this will prove to be another incredibly busy year for lawyers and judges working trucking cases. Our first case litigation comes from the state of Arkansas.
All Hours Worked
Last fall, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas ruled that an Arkansas-based transportation company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Although the company petitioned the court to dismiss the case, the motion was denied. The case was initially brought on by three truck drivers and then became a class action lawsuit when another 3,000 truck drivers joined the case.
After appeal, the case headed to the docket headed up by U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks. Then, on January 25, Judge Brooks reaffirmed the decision and allowed the class action certification to remain. While this decision was largely expected, it created major shockwaves throughout the trucking industry. Depending on how this lawsuit ultimately plays out, it could completely upend the way truck drivers are paid across the country.
The lawsuit was brought on by truck drivers who alleged that the company failed to compensate its truck drivers at least the federal minimum wage for all compensable time worked. The lawsuit includes the initial orientation period and time worked driving over-the-road, whether solo or in teams. They also included any travel tie that occurred during normal business hours.
While the judge reaffirmed the ruling, he also made clear that, as he referred to it, the lawsuit involved a “somewhat tangled web of statutes, agency regulations, and agency interpretations of statutes and regulations.” One of the main sticking points for the suit is a Department of Labor rule that caps the amount of time an employer may dock an employee (at 8 hours) who is on duty for more than 24 hours.
The argument shifts to the Fair Labor Standards Act definition of what is “on duty” and what is waiting. The specific verbiage cited rests on the aspect of the rule that says if an employee is required to report to a place of work at a specific time, the time the employee spends waiting should be compensable. The motor carrier at the center of the lawsuit argued that time the truck driver spends in their sleeper berth should not compensable, whereas the truck drivers said it should be.
The truck drivers also pointed to a regulation citing that “work performed while traveling” must also be compensable. In his ruling, Judge Brooks wrote that there no ambiguity to these citations. He stated that whether the truck driver is riding around in his truck sleeping or eating, the time should be considered “working” and that any “work performed while traveling” is compensable.
Debating the Verbiage
As with almost any federal employment lawsuit, much of this revolves around the verbiage used in the original statute. There are specific definitions in the Fair Labor Standards act that are being debated, with the main area of contention being that the act does not clearly define the terms “on duty” or “hours worked.”
The trucking company argues that DOT hours of service regulations should be applied where the term “on duty” is concerned. According to HOS roles, on duty time is all the time from the time a truck driver begins work until the time the truck driver is relieved from work. HOS rules specifically exclude time spent resting in a sleeper berth as on-duty time.
Judge Brooks explicitly dismissed this line of defense, stating that the DOT regulations have little bearing on what he considered to be a labor and employment matter. He went on to state that there is no inconsistency if the DOT prohibits commercial truck drivers from operating a commercial motor vehicle for more than 14 hours in a 24-hour period while the DOL required that employers pay them for at least 16 hours within the time period allotted by the DOT. He states this paradigm would simply be the cost of business for the trucking company.
The attorneys for the trucking company argued that the idea that a truck driver is on duty for 24 hours a day is, inherently, a faulty premise. If one were to go by DOT regulations, a truck driver simply cannot be on duty for 24 hours a day since they are required to take a 10-hour break at some point within the work period.
The interesting part about this is that there is another case that is also working its way through the course which could also set a precedent in this argument.
Regarding Student Truck Drivers
Another case pits student truck drivers against their employer. In the program cited, students were required to be on the road with experienced truck drivers for training purposes and the students are paid a flat weekly rate. While the trucking company stated in the lawsuit that it reviews the total number of on-duty hours logged and supplements the pay if they are not getting paid minimum wage for their time, the argument once again revolves around what exactly “on-duty” means.
The trucking company in this case argued that when the truck driver is in the sleeper berth, they are not on “active duty.” The student truck drivers in the case noted that they were on assignment for 24 hours, even when they were in the sleeper berth. By their definition, while they were with the vehicle, they were directly responsible for the vehicle, which means they were never completely relieved of their responsibilities associated with the vehicle. Thus, they were never actually off duty.
This case may face a larger battle than the Arkansas case. The student’s original motion had been denied in 2015 by a U.S. District Court judge. In denying the motion in that case, the judge singled out a case filed in Oregon where an Idaho-based trucking company successfully defended itself from similar claims.
The difference is that in this case, the judge specified that if the truck driver is permitted to sleep in adequate facilities furnished by the employer, that cannot be considered “work while traveling.” The judge then pointed to the DOL’s field operations handbook, which regards sleeper berths as adequate sleeping facilities.
How either of these cases will play out is anyone’s guess, but one way or another, a precedent will be set. Will truck drivers or trucking companies come out on the winning end? Stay tuned to find out.
California Fights the FMCSA
Meanwhile, in California (which we seem to say a lot), the state has petitioned the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the FMCSA’s recent decree that the state cannot enforce the rest break and meal rules for truck drivers. In the case, the DOT deemed California’s law incompatible with federal regulations. The DOT stated that California’s law created a confusing and overly burdensome situation for truck drivers that reduces productivity and increases consumer costs. They also said adequate parking could become an issue. This case is yet another example of state’s rights versus the will of the federal government.
In its petition, California argued that the rules they instituted are “background” labor standards, rather than a specific regulation of all motor carriers in the state. The state went to argue that the FMCSA simply does not have jurisdiction in the matter. California’s Labor Secretary, Julie A. Su, stated that under the George W. Bush administration, the FMCSA clearly determined that these types of worker rights were not preempted by federal law.
California alleges that the FMCSA guidelines would require truck drivers to work up to 12 hours a day without rest breaks, which could present a major safety issue for both truck drivers and those on the road around them. California also pointed out that there have been numerous court cases in the past that have upheld California labor standards against preemption where trucking and transportation-related cases are concerned.
Even more, California is not the only entity attempting to litigate a change in this case. The Teamsters Union has also stepped in to challenge the FMCSA’s declaration. In their petition, they also pointed to highway and public safety, stating that this is a matter of trucking companies being allowed to make a little bit of profit at the sake of truck driver well-being.
Certainly, this case will continue making its way through the courts and may eventually wind up on the Supreme Court’s docket. While the current makeup of the Supreme Court favors corporations, it is still too soon to tell if they will even take the case. Whatever happens, you can rest assured we will be right here covering it for you and providing an in-depth analysis at the QuickTSI blog.