Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Williams v. Office Relocators (Maryland U.S.D.C.)

Memorandum Opinion and Order Signed April 23, 2007--Judge J. Frederick Motz.

Gerald Williams, in an action against his former employer under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), the Maryland Wage & Hour Law ("MWHL"), and the Maryland Wage Payment & Collection Law ("MWPCL"), presented the question whether Williams, while employed by Maryland Office Relocators ("MOR") fell within a class of employees over whom the Interstate Commerce Commission ("ICC") has the power to establish "qualifications and maximum hours of service." If Williams does not fall under this exemption (the "Motor Carrier Act" exemption), it is undisputed that he is entitled to overtime pay. If, on the other hand, he does fall within the exemption, it is undisputed that he is not entitled to overtime pay.

In this instance, the critical consideration in determing whether Williams falls within the Motor Carrier Act exemption is whether his activities "affect safety of operation" of a motor vehicle in interstate commerce. Therefore, where the "continuing duties of the employee's job had no substantial direct effect on such safety of operation or where such safety-affecting activities are so trivial, casual, and insignificant as to be de minimus, the exemption will not apply to him in any work week so long as there is no change in his duties."

In testimony, MOR failed to present any person supervised by Williams, who saw Williams on a job, any truck driver or mover who worked with Williams on a job, or indeed any operations manager contradicting Williams' own description of the work he actually performed. This Court found that, as a result, the Motor Carrier Act exemption applied and Williams was entitled to overtime pay under the FLSA and MWHL.

Two ancillary questions relating to Williams' claims remained under the FLSA and MWHL. First, was Williams entitled to liquidated damages under the FLSA and, second, was MOR's non-payment of Williams' overtime compensation "willful" so as to entitle Williams to three, rather than two, years back overtime pay?

An employer who violates the terms of the FLSA "shall be liable to the employee(s) affected in the amount of their unpaid minimum wages or their unpaid overtime compensation, as the cause may be, and in an additional equal amount as liquidated damages." However, if the employer shows to the satisfaction of the court that the act or ommission giving rise to such action was in good faith and that he had reasonable grounds for believing his act or ommission was not a violation of the FLSA," a court may refuse to award liquidated damages or may award liquidated damages in an amount less than that of the unpaid overtime compensation. The employer bears the plain and substantial burden of pursuading the court by proof that his failure to obey the statute was both in good faith and predicated upon such reasonable grounds that it would be unfair to impose upon him more than a compensatory verdict. Here, MOR's averments were entirely insufficient and it was found liable for the liquidated damages.

The statute of limitations for the FLSA is normally two years. However, if a plaintiff can demonstrate that the defendant's violation was "willful," the plaintiff may recover for the preceding three years. Violations are "willful" if the employer either knew or showed reckless disregard for the matter of whether its conduct was prohibited by the statute. The plaintiff bears the burden of proof of whether the defendant's actions were willful.

Williams' final claim for treble damages under the MWPCL was found without merit. Williams' claim was governed by the FLSA and the MWHL, not the MWPCL.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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