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Paralift van drivers entitled to overtime pay because capacity of vans measured by present configuration

May 16th, 2017  |  Ron Miller

Paralift van drivers successfully argued that they were entitled to overtime pay because the vehicles they operated were not exempt from FLSA overtime under the Motor Carrier Act exemption, ruled the Eighth Circuit. In LaCurtis v. Express Medical Transporters, Inc., the appeals court concluded that a district court correctly determined that the vans were not “designed or used to transport more than eight passengers” under Section 306(c) of the SAFETEA-LU Technical Corrections Act (TCA). As originally manufactured, the vans could accommodate either 12 or 15 passengers. However, they underwent significant modifications to be employed as wheelchair accessible vehicles. The vans weighed less than 10,000 pounds, and were presently configured to accommodate less than eight passengers (including the driver).

In this case, several paralift van drivers initiated separate actions seeking to recover overtime pay. Those cases were consolidated into this action. Although the drivers routinely worked more than 40 hours a week, their employer did not pay them overtime. It argued that the drivers were not eligible for overtime because the overtime provisions did not apply to any employee with respect to whom the Secretary of Transportation has power to establish qualifications and maximum hours of service—commonly referred to as the Motor Carrier Act (MCA) exemption.

Design and use. The pivotal issue was whether the paralift vans in this case were “designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers” for purposes of Section 306 of the TCA. The vans were originally designed and manufactured to carry up to 12 and 15 passengers. They have a gross vehicle weight of 10,000 pounds or less. Before placing the vans in service, they were converted into paralift vans. The vans as configured have a maximum seating capacity of five and six passengers (two passengers in wheelchairs, and up to five additional passengers).

Motor carrier exemption. In 2008, Congress passed the SAFETEA-LU Technical Corrections Act (TCA), which narrowed the scope of the MCA exemption. Under the TCA, the FLSA overtime provisions “apply to a covered employee notwithstanding the MCA exemption.” The term “covered employee” means a driver or helper “whose work, in whole or in part,” affects “the safety of operation of motor vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less,” unless the vehicle is “designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers (including the driver) for compensation.”

Deference. The district court gave deference to U.S. Department of Labor Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2010-2 (FAB 2010-2) in which the agency announced that it would determine whether a vehicle is “designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers” “based on the vehicle’s current design and the vehicle capacity as found on the door jam plate.” Accordingly, the lower court concluded that wheelchair placement should count as one passenger, and decided that the employees were “covered employees” under TCA Section 306 because the paralift vans they drove had fewer than eight seats. It granted the employee’s motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit had to determine whether the district court erred in failing to give controlling deference to 49 C.F.R. Section 571.3(b)(1) in interpreting TCA, Section 306. It concluded that it did not. There was nothing in the record to indicate that either the Secretary of Transportation or the FMCSA had examined the TCA or weighed in on its meaning or its possible effect on the MCA exemption, much less said that the limited definition in Section 571.3(b)(1) should control the appeals court interpretation of the TCA. Accordingly, the district court did not err in declining to give controlling deference to Section 571.3(b)(1) in deciding the drivers were “covered employees” under TCA, Section 306.

Meaning of “designed.” Next, the appeals court had to determine if the paralift vans were “designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers.” Here, the appeals court gave “some deference” to the WHD interpretation in FAB 2010-2. The term “designed” is not defined in the TCA, and the statute lacks a “temporal qualifier” that would make the meaning clear as it relates to the dispute in this case. It found that the interpretations proposed by both parties were reasonable. However, it concluded that Congress did not intend for the term “designed” as used in TCA, Section 306(c) to be limited to a vehicle’s original design no matter what happened to the vehicle after its original design. Because the paralift vans could no longer accommodate more than seven passengers following modification, the district court’s judgment that the employer was liable for overtime pay was affirmed.

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