Landscape Laborers' FLSA Claims Survive Motion to Dismiss

In Aviles-Cervantes v. Outside Unlimited, Inc., No. CV RDB-16-1214, 2017 WL 3916985 (D. Md. Sept. 7, 2017), Plaintiffs alleged, inter alia, that Defendant Outside Unlimited failed to pay workers for approximately 1–2 hours of work per day for time spent loading and unloading trucks and traveling from Outside Unlimited's “yard” to job sites and back again.
 
Outside Unlimited contended that Plaintiffs' FLSA claims relating to paychecks received before April 22, 2014 were time-barred under the FLSA's default limitations period. The  FLSA has a two-tiered statute of limitations. For ordinary violations there is a two-year statute of limitations. For ‘willful’ violations there is a three-year statute of limitations. Plaintiffs alleged violations of the FLSA with respect to their employment by Defendant in 2013, 2014, and 2015.  Although they did not file the initial Complaint until April 22, 2016, Plaintiffs claimed “willful” violations of the FLSA. Defendant argued that Plaintiffs failed to plausibly allege “willfulness” and, accordingly, did not allege entitlement to the FLSA's three-year limitation period. Therefore, Outside Unlimited moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' FLSA claims arising before April 22, 2014, two years prior to their filing of the initial Complaint. 
 
Because the question of whether a defendant's alleged FLSA violations were ‘willful’ is not an element of plaintiffs' claims' but rather an anticipation of a limitations defense that the defendant may raise, plaintiffs did not need to allege specific facts that the defendant willfully violated the FLSA. 
 
Even if the Plaintiffs were required to plead “specific facts” in support of their allegations of “willfulness” at this stage of the proceedings, the Court found they had adequately done so. An employer's violation of the FLSA is willful if the employer either knew or showed reckless disregard for the matter of whether its conduct was prohibited by the statute. Plaintiffs alleged that Outside Unlimited acted willfully or with reckless disregard in failing to pay them and the other class members in conformance with the requirements of the FLSA. Specifically, Plaintiffs claimed that they and the other class members performed work under their contracts with Outside Unlimited, but Outside Unlimited intentionally did not record all of their compensable hours of work, despite having been made aware through its agent and through other means of the requirement of the federal and state minimum wage laws. They further alleged that Defendant intentionally did not record all of their compensable hours of work. 
 
For these reasons, Outside Unlimited's Motion to Dismiss was denied by the Court regarding Plaintiffs' entitlement to the three-year statute of limitations for “willful violations” of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
 
Outside Unlimited also argued that the FLSA does not require Plaintiffs to be paid for their morning commute. Plaintiffs alleged that Outside Unlimited failed to pay for time in the morning during which workers were required to assemble in the yard to receive crew assignments and for time spent traveling to the first job, failed to pay for the time during which workers were driven between their housing units and the yard, and failed to pay for the time in the afternoon they spent returning to the yard from the last jobsite to unload and load the trucks in preparation for the next workday's assignments. Defendant objected that this “commuting” work time was not “indispensable and integral” to the workers' “principal activity” and, accordingly, moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' FLSA claims to the extent they relied on those allegations.
 
The Portal–to–Portal Act of 1947, which amended the FLSA, exempts from compensation two types of activities that had previously been treated as compensable work. First, the act provides that 'employers are not liable for an employee's time spent ‘walking, riding, or traveling to and from the actual place of performance of the principal activity or activities which such employee is employed to perform.’ And second, the act provides that 'employers are not liable for an employee's time spent on ‘activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to said principal activity or activities, which occur either prior to the time on any particular workday at which such employee commences, or subsequent to the time on any particular workday at which he ceases, such principal activity or activities.’ To determine an employer's liability for unpaid wages and overtime, the key inquiry is whether such activities are properly labeled principal activities under the Portal–to–Portal Act.
 
The Supreme Court determined that the test for whether an activity is ‘integral and indispensable’ is tied to the productive work that the employee is employed to perform. That is, an activity is only ‘integral and indispensable’ to the performance of an employee's principal activities if ‘it is an intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities.
 
This Court has recently held that a sewer cleaning contractor's failure to compensate laborers for their daily “commute” from Sparrows Point in Baltimore, Maryland to a Washington, D.C. job site was not categorically exempt from coverage under the FLSA. Similar to the Plaintiffs' allegations in this case, the laborers were required to travel to a company-owned parking lot every morning, where they loaded trucks with equipment necessary for their work and then transported those trucks to the Washington, D.C. job site. Although the laborers were “commuting” from Sparrows Point to Washington, DC, they could not perform their work at the job site without the tools and work equipment they transported. Likewise, Plaintiffs in this case alleged that they had to travel to the yard to receive crew assignments and to load and unload trucks in preparation for their work assignments. This Court has similarly held that time spent by laborers at the end of their work duties driving their employers' equipment back to their employers' place of business and returning the equipment to a secure location was ‘integral and indispensable to their principal activity as laborers and construction workers' and thus ‘should have been compensated’ under the FLSA. Finally, in another case, this Court denied laborers' claims for compensation as to pre-work commute to their employer's optional worker pick-up location at a company-owned warehouse only because no reasonable jury could find that plaintiffs were required to meet at the warehouse to perform work.
 
For these reasons, the Court did not dismiss Plaintiffs' allegations at that stage of the proceedings. Plaintiffs stated a plausible claim that their daily travel time to and from “the yard” was “integral and indispensable” to their “primary work” and, therefore, not categorically exempt from coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Additionally, “the precise nature” of an employee's pre—and post-work duties, for purposes of FLSA coverage, “is a question of fact," which cannot be determined by the judge at such an early stage of the lawsuit.

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