Fifth Circuit Reiterates that a Seaman under FLSA is Not Equivalent to a Jones Act Seaman and Reviews Whether Remotely Operated Vehicle Technicians Onboard Vessels Fall within the FLSA’s Seaman Exemption

On April 19, 2017, the Fifth Circuit in Halle v. Galliano Marine Serv., LLC issued on opinion reiterating that a“seaman” under the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is not equivalent to a Jones Act seaman, and decided an issue of first impression – whether remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technicians are seaman under the FLSA. The District Court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that plaintiff was a seaman and was therefore exempt from FLSA overtime protections. The Fifth Circuit reversed and concluded that it had not been established as a matter of law that the seaman exemption in the FLSA applies.

In Halle, defendants ran a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) business for offshore applications, such as servicing offshore drilling rigs. Defendants employed plaintiff as an ROV supervisor. He was responsible for navigating and controlling ROVs onboard an ROV support vessel, which ROVs remained tethered to the support vessel. The technicians control the ROVs using video feed and joysticks. They are not mixed in with the crew. Plaintiff never performed maintenance work on the ROV support vessel. Plaintiff sued defendants for failing to pay him overtime purportedly required by the FLSA.

The FLSA requires employers to provide overtime pay to any employee who works more than 40 hours, unless an exemption such as the “seaman” exemption exists. The Court found that under FLSA, an employee is a seaman when “(1) the employee is subject to the authority, direction, and control of the master; and (2) the employee’s service is primarily offered to aid the vessel as a means of transportation, provided that the employee does not perform a substantial amount of different work.” The FLSA seaman exemption “generally depends on the facts in each case.” The Court also reasserted a long-recognized concept that while the Jones Act interprets “seaman” “broadly to maximize the scope of the remedial coverage,” the FLSA seaman exemption has been “drawn narrowly [] to minimize the number of employees who lose the Act’s protections.”

Regarding the FLSA’s first prong, the Court decided that the only vessel in this case was the ROV Support Vessel, and plaintiff conceded that he was “not subject to the support vessel’s chain of command.” As for the second prong, the Court found that the critical issue is whether “the primary purpose” of plaintiff’s work “is safe navigation of the ship.” The Court found that plaintiff did not help ensure that the support vessel safely navigates, and does not “make any navigational decisions or take any navigational actions.” Ultimately, the Fifth Circuit declined to “equate maintenance, repair, or navigation of superficially attached machinery (here, the ROVs) with maintenance, repair, or navigation of the support vessel” and reversed the lower court’s decision that found plaintiff to be a seaman for purposes of the FLSA exemption. 

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