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Supreme Court’s new expansive reading of FLSA is applied for first time by a Circuit Court

The Supreme Court held earlier this year in Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) should no longer be construed narrowly in favor of employees but should, instead, be given a “fair” reading based on its own language. The Supreme Court’s ruling has just seen its first application in a Circuit Court case, entitled Mosquera v. MTI Retreading Co., decided by the Sixth Circuit.

In Mosquera, the employee held an engineering degree but argued he spent less than 50% of his time doing work that required an engineering degree and should, therefore, not have been classified as a professional employee exempt from overtime. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. The Sixth Circuit noted the evidence that had been submitted in support of the employer’s summary judgment motion and dismissed the plaintiff’s own affidavit to the contrary, saying it was “unsubstantiated” and “self-serving.” The Sixth Circuit noted that, prior to Encino Motorcars, it would have looked on the plaintiff’s claim more favorably, interpreting the professional exemption “narrowly,” but under the Supreme Court’s new ruling, it was required to give the law a broader “fair” reading instead. Under the new approach to FLSA, the Sixth Circuit held the employer’s motion for summary judgment was “compelling” and as such, it held, the employee was properly characterized as a professional who was exempt from overtime.

Mosquera is no doubt the first in a long line of cases to come that will take a less “narrow” approach to interpreting FLSA.

Source:  Mosquera v. MTI Retreading Co. (6th Cir. 8/14/18).

“Spiritual coercion,” “volunteers” and children under federal wage laws

Two recent decisions by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals address the applicability of federal labor laws to church volunteers. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the nation’s leading wage-hour law. FLSA requires a minimum wage, overtime pay and prohibits child labor. FLSA applies only to “employees.” Volunteers are generally not considered to be “employees;” therefore, FLSA generally does not apply to volunteers. These two recent cases addressed these concepts in the context of church volunteers.

One case was decided by the Sixth Circuit, Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc. It involved a restaurant, operated by a church, on the church’s campus, that was open to the public and staffed in part by church volunteers.

The other case was decided by the Tenth Circuit, Acosta v. Paragon Contractors Corp. It involved a pecan ranch, at which church members, including children, harvested pecans.

In both cases, the Courts held the businesses were commercial enterprises subject to FLSA, and that the church members were doing work. Thus both courts were called to decide if the church members were truly volunteering their time, such that FLSA did not apply to their work. Both courts looked to a 1985 Supreme Court decision, Alamo Foundation, where the Supreme Court held that a volunteer is, among other things, someone who works “without promise or expectation of compensation” and “for his own personal purpose or pleasure.” And, there, the Courts split. The Sixth Circuit held that the church members were volunteers, and the Tenth Circuit held they were not.

Why did the Courts split? The Sixth Circuit decided its case after the Tenth Circuit, and it held that the difference was because (a) the Tenth Circuit case involved children and (b) the Tenth Circuit case involved more than “spiritual coercion.”

Under Alamo Foundation, a worker cannot be held a “volunteer” if his work is coerced. A person who is coerced into working is not working purely “for his own personal purpose or pleasure.” The Sixth Circuit held that, in the Cathedral Buffet case, the workers, who were adults, were working because they felt it was expected of them to be “faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” The Sixth Circuit held that, even if such religious dogma was considered to be coercive, it is “spiritual coercion,” and as such insufficient to transform a volunteer into an “employee” under FLSA. However, the Court held that in the Tenth Circuit’s case, the workers were children and, further, in its own case, the Tenth Circuit highlighted facts suggesting more than mere spiritual coercion. For example, the Tenth Circuit pointed to evidence, including “one child (who) stated that if she had not worked, she would have lost her family and been kicked out of the community.”

Non-profits that benefit from the work of volunteers, especially church-related non-profits, should carefully review these two new cases.

Source: Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc.case no. 17–3427 (6th Cir. 4/16/18); Acosta v. Paragon Contractors Corp., case no. 17-4025 (10th Cir. 5/13/18).

Sixth Circuit holds transgendered workers are already protected by Title VII

Following a recent Second Circuit decision holding that sexual preference (LGB) is already protected by Title VII within the meaning of “sex,” the Sixth Circuit has held that being transgendered is also so protected.

While both cases may be heading for Supreme Court review, they suggest that LGBT may well be determined by other federal Circuit Courts to have been protected by Title VII since its inception in 1964. Employers are reminded that many states and local governments already have express protections for LGBT workers.

Source: EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., case no. 16-2424 (6th Cir. 3/7/18).

Union gripes held not a request to bargain

Unionized employers may not implement unilateral changes to wages, hours and working conditions without first providing the union notice and an opportunity to bargain. A union is not required to bargain at that point. Unions often do not; many unilateral changes are everyday and, for unions, often involve no issue warranting negotiation.

In this case, the union, through its president, expressed discontent with a change, condescendingly threatening the company’s labor relations director with “a board charge honey.” He said he would “have to come to (company headquarters) for this one.” While he followed through with his threat to file a board charge, he did not actually request to negotiate, schedule a time to come to, much less go to corporate headquarters.

While a divided NLRB held that his expressions of discontent were sufficient to trigger negotiations, the Sixth Circuit disagreed. “These comments expressed disapproval, to be sure; but that establishes only protest,” the Court held.

The pertinent question is whether, in light of the record as a whole, they clearly signaled a request to bargain. On that point, they were at best ambiguous rather than clear.

The case was Ohio Edison Co. v. NLRB, case no. 15-1783 (6th Cir. 2/10/17).