The Spokane Valley Fire Department (SVFD) has filed a federal civil suit against the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local 3701 in the Eastern District of Washington state. SVFD is looking for the court to issue a “declaratory judgement” that battalion chiefs and fire marshals are exempt from FLSA overtime. This is a highly unusual suit for several reasons, let’s take a look.
First, the employer (SVFD) is suing the employees collective bargaining representative (IAFF local 3701). The vast majority of FLSA suits arise when individual employees group together to collectively (or sometimes individually) sue his or her employer for violations. Here the fire department is the plaintiff. Additionally, labor organizations cannot typically represent employees in FLSA suits. There may be significant jurisdictional hurdles in front of SVFD. The court would have to find the IAFF has standing to be part of this suit.
Second, SVFD is seeking a “declaratory judgement.” A declaratory judgement is when a court is asked for a formal opinion to settle a possible or potential legal dispute between parties. SVFD wants the court to determine these high-ranking fire officers are automatically exempt from FLSA overtime based on their job descriptions and past collective bargaining agreements. The IAFF has yet to answer the department’s claims, but if there are factual differences between the two sides, how should the court decide? That leads us to the next interesting aspect of this complaint.
Declaratory judgments usually involve undisputed facts. The judge can theoretically offer an opinion based on agreed upon facts from all parties. The judge can form an opinion as a matter of law on those facts. We will have to wait and see what happens on this front.
Finally, SVFD claims the Department of Labor’s (DOL) first responder regulations do “not apply to battalion chiefs or fire marshals.” In fact, the first responder regulations were crafted to specifically avoid this type of blanket assertion. Rank alone does not determine FLSA exempt status. The DOL regulations state individuals “who perform work such as preventing, controlling or extinguishing fires of any type; rescuing fire, crime or accident victims; … conducting investigations or inspections for violations of law” are entitled to FLSA overtime pay “regardless of rank or pay level”.
There are instances where battalion chiefs or fire marshals can be FLSA exempt, this could even be one of those instances, however that can only be determined after evaluation of individual facts and circumstances. The type of facts and circumstances that are typically elicited during a trial, not during a declaratory judgement proceeding.
At this point, much is unknown. We will watch as this unusual case develops. It will be especially interesting to see how the court and possibly even the DOL react to SVFD’s unusual request. The one thing that is for certain is that we have not heard the last of this one.
For more information, here is a copy of the complaint: