Sixth Circuit Denies Overtime for Two Michigan Battalion Chiefs

Two Battle Creek, Michigan battalion chiefs (BCs) have again lost their claim for FLSA overtime. In a June 3, 2019 decision the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision denying Battalion Chiefs Howard Holt and Martin Erskine overtime for time spent on-call after their normal work hours.

Battalion chief Howard Holt, who retired in 2015 and battalion chief Martin Erskine, who is stilled employed by the Battle Creek Fire Department initiated the FLSA lawsuit in September 2015. Both sought compensation for all the hours they were required to be on-call, or as it is referred to in the lawsuit on standby duty. Holt, Erskine, and Battle Creek’s fire chief were each required to be on-call during specific evening, overnight, and weekend hours as part of their role in the departments command staff.

The BCs argued that their personal time was severely restricted while serving on-call and as a result should be compensated. Courts and the Department of Labor (DOL) typically adopt a standard in which on-call time does not have to be compensated if the on-call employee is free to engage in personal activities while on call. Basically, if the employer places severe restrictions on an employee’s ability to pursue his or her own personal pursuits while on-call, they may be entitled to compensation for that time. Whether or not on-call time needs to be compensated depends on the specific facts of each situation.

Following a two-day bench trial in August of 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Janet T. Neff found for the City of Battle Creek and denied the BCs claims. Judge Neff denied the BCs claims based on two separate findings. First, the BCs at question were “white-collar” exempt employees and thus ineligible for any FLSA overtime. Second, even if the BCs were eligible for FLSA overtime, the employer (fire department) did not place unreasonable restrictions on the BCs activities while on call, so there was no need to compensate them for this activity.  The debate over whether any fire officer can be properly classified as a “white-collar” overtime exempt employee is very determined by examining the specific facts of the situation. Typically, this debate revolves around the fire officer’s primary duty. The DOL defines primary duty as the principle, main, or most important duty that an employee performs.

The DOL has also issued regulations, aptly entitled the First Responder Regulations that specifically restrict the ability of employers to classify first-responders as “white-collar” overtime exempt employees. To boil it down, if a fire officer’s primary duty is acting as a first responder, they are entitled to overtime. If the fire officer’s primary duty is managing the fire department, they may not be entitled to overtime.

Surprisingly, there was very little (if any) discussion within the various trial briefs filed by both the plaintiffs and the defendant or the Sixth Circuit’s decision regarding the application of the First Responder Regulations to these BCs.   

Here are some relevant portions from the Sixth Circuit’s Decision:

  • The district court found that Plaintiffs’ primary duty was managerial in nature, satisfying the second element of the executive exemption.
  • The district court focused on the fact that Plaintiffs “were required to directly supervise lower-ranking officers and personnel, evaluate personnel, administer and enforce department policy, and coordinate the day-to-day operations of the department.”
  • The district court pointed to several pieces of evidence and testimony that supported this finding. It noted that testimony established that the battalion chiefs were expected to “take charge and operate as the incident commanders at the scene of a fire.”
  • This evidence supports the district court’s conclusion that Plaintiffs’ primary duty was management of the City of Battle Creek fire department.
  • Plaintiffs argue that the district court’s conclusion was clear error because Plaintiffs’ “actual[] job duties, not the ones described in their [Standard Operating Procedures], were that of a regular rank and file firefighter, with [a] few added responsibilities for the sake of preserving order in chaos in a fire fight.”
  • In essence, Plaintiffs argue that the district court should have weighed the evidence differently to conclude that Plaintiffs’ primary duties were not managerial.
  • This argument is unpersuasive.
  • Ample evidence supports the district court’s conclusion, so this Court cannot second-guess the district court’s factual findings.
  • The district court did not commit clear error in concluding that Plaintiffs’ duties were primarily managerial.
  • Our determination that the district court did not commit clear error in finding Plaintiffs subject to the executive exemption is sufficient to uphold the district court’s denial of Plaintiffs’ claim for overtime compensation under the FLSA.
  • Therefore, we need not address the district court’s additional conclusions that Plaintiffs were also subject to the FLSA’s administrative exemption and that, even if the exemptions did not apply, standby time was not so onerous as to be compensable under the FLSA.

Here is a copy of the original complaint as well as the recent Sixth Circuit decision.

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