Federal Judge Throws Out Suit Filed by WA State Fire Department Over FLSA Overtime for Battalion Chiefs and Fire Marshals

This past week a district court judge in Washington state dismissed a highly unusual FLSA lawsuit initiated by the Spokane Valley Fire Department (SVFD) back in the summer of 2017. Spokane Valley filed the suit against the union that represents its firefighters, IAFF Local 3701, in an effort to receive a judicial declaration that SVFD battalion chiefs and fire marshals are ineligible for FLSA overtime. Click here for more on that story.

This suit was highly unusual for several reasons.

First and foremost, this was an FLSA lawsuit filed by an employer—yes, an employer—against its employees. Typical FLSA lawsuits are filed by employees claiming their employers failed to pay them correctly. The prospect of employers being able to sue employees, or employee representatives, to pre-emptively deny them overtime is troubling to say the least.

Second, SVFD was seeking a federal court to declare its battalion chiefs and fire marshals per se overtime exempt executive employees based on job descriptions and past collective bargaining agreements. This assertion flies-in-the-face of basic FLSA and Department of Labor (DOL) principles regarding overtime exemptions. Click here for more on high-ranking fire department officers and FLSA overtime eligibility.

In the end, U.S. District Court Judge Salvador Mendoza, Jr. dismissed the lawsuit based on jurisdictional grounds. Typically, in order for a court to have jurisdiction to decide any matter there needs to be a case or controversy. In other words, there needs to be a dispute between parties. The role of the court is to determine if one party is liable to another over the dispute. Here, the judge found “that no genuine dispute exists as to any material fact and Local 3701 is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the Department’s claim for relief.” In essence, SVFD was seeking an advisory opinion from the court that battalion chiefs and fire marshals are ineligible for FLSA overtime. Courts do not have the authority to issue such opinions.

While this decision is certainly welcome news for some high-ranking fire department officers, it does not address the underlying issue of whether they are in-fact entitled to FLSA overtime.

However, the significance of this dismissal should not be lost on firefighters and fire departments across the country. This decision bolsters underlying principles regarding the application of FLSA exemptions. Whether or not any employee is exempt from FLSA overtime depends on the specific facts and circumstances. There are few per se rules regarding FLSA exemptions, especially when dealing with firefighters and overtime.

Here is a copy of the decision.

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