Federal court in Texas rules on Motor Carrier Act exemption

One of the hot topics over the past year in the wage and hour sphere has been the Motor Carrier Act (“MCA”) exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which provides that overtime pay is not required for “any employee with respect to whom the Secretary of Transportation has power to establish qualifications and maximum hours of service.”  Traditionally, this meant that anyone who drove, loaded or rode in a vehicle weighing more than 10,000 pounds was exempt from overtime pay.  However, Congress narrowed the MCA exemption with the enactment of the SAFETEA-LU Technical Corrections Act of 2008 (“TCA”). Section 306(a) of the TCA provides that “Section 7 of the [FLSA]…shall apply to a covered employee notwithstanding section 13(b)(1) of that Act.”  Section 306(c) of the TCA provides that a “covered employee” is an employee of a motor carrier whose job, “in whole or in part,” affects the safe operation of vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.  The MCA exemption is particularly important in cases involving oilfield workers and those in the oil and gas industry, as these workers frequently drive, load or ride in trucks which are at or just below or above the 10,000 pound threshold.  As such, whether these workers are entitled to overtime pay at all could hinge on what test is used to determine the MCA exemption issue.

The TCA only refers to “motor vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.”” This language has created some ambiguity as to whether a court should use the Gross Vehicle Weight Ratio (“GVWR”) or the actual weight of a vehicle as the measure when assessing whether employees are covered under the TCA.

This issue is important, as depending on the facts of an FLSA case plaintiffs will sometimes claim that even though the vehicle(s) at issue had a GVWR of more than 10,000 pounds, they fall outside of the MCA exemption because the actual weight of the vehicle was less than 10,000 pounds.  Conversely, defendants will sometimes claim that even though the GVWR of the vehicle at issue was less than 10,000 pounds, the actual weight of the vehicle, once all accessories and equipment was included, was more than 10,000 pounds, thus rendering the driver/passengers subject to the MCA exemption.  The Eighth Circuit has ruled that it is the GVWR, rather than the actual weight of the vehicle, that is determinative for the purposes of the MCA exemption.  McCall v. Disabled Am. Veterans, 723 F.3d 962, 966 (8th Cir. 2013).

In January of this year, a Texas federal district court was asked to rule on the MCA exemption in a case involving oilfield workers that drove F-250 trucks.  In Roche v. S-3 Pump Service, Inc., Civil Action No. 5:15-CV-268-XR (W.D. Texas, January 4, 2016), the defendants argued that it should be the actual weight of the vehicle that is determinative when deciding the applicability of the MCA Exemption.  However, the Honorable Xavier Rodriguez, in his opinion, noted that Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division states that the DOL “will continue to use the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross combined vehicle weight rating in the event that the vehicle is pulling a trailer.”  The Court then stated that using the actual weight measurement when deciding the MCA Exemption would be impractical, as “employers would be required to weight trucks and loaded trailers on a regular basis to ensure that they may benefit from the exemption.”  The Court then held that it “will provide deference to the DOL’s interpretation,” meaning it “will apply gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross combined vehicle weight rating in the event that the vehicle is pulling a trailer.”  The Roche Court went on to hold that the plaintiffs, by providing evidence that they drove F-250 pickup trucks with no trailers attached on a weekly basis, had provided sufficient evidence to prove the inapplicability of the MCA Exemption.  As such, the Court granted the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion and denied the defendants’ summary judgment motion on the MCA Exemption, holding it to be inapplicable to the plaintiffs’ claims.

It is this author’s opinion that the Eight Circuit and Judge Rodriguez got the issue right in the McCall and Roche opinions.  A ruling that it is the actual weight that is determinative of the MCA exemption is not feasible, as it would require an employer to continuously monitor its vehicles to determine the actual weight of them to see whether their employees operating and riding in these vehicles might be subject to the MCA.  Given that the actual weight of a vehicle could fluctuate significantly, such a rule would be unworkable.  Moreover, one could easily imagine situations where a defendant might argue that because it overloaded its vehicles with aftermarket components such that the actual weight of the vehicles exceeded their GVWR (and, since it is against the law to drive vehicles which weigh more than their GVWR, such vehicles would be operated illegally), they should receive the benefit of the MCA exemption.  This obviously would create bad public policy to allow an employer to benefit by breaking the law.  Instead, as held in the McCall and Roche cases, it should be the GVWR of a vehicle that is used in determining MCA exemption coverage.  The GVWR of a vehicle does not change – it is is the manufacturer’s safety rating setting the “sum of the weight of the [vehicle], accessories, and the maximum weight of the rider, passenger and cargo that can be safely carried.”  As such, it provides a static method for determining whether an employee who operated, loaded or rode in the vehicle is subject to the MCA exemption.

About the author: Josh Borsellino is a Texas attorney focusing on claims for unpaid overtime.  Josh is based in Fort Worth, Texas but represents oilfield workers and others who have been denied overtime in federal courts throughout Texas and beyond.  Josh can be reached at 817.908.9861 or 432.242.7118 or by using this online form.

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