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Coffin v. Blessey Marine Services, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

November 13, 2014

KEITH COFFIN, on behalf of himself and others similarly situated; ERIC JONES; JOSE L. RANGEL; JOSH FOX; GREGORY ROBINSON; JASON J. VILLAREAL; DUSTIN AKINS; MASON FULKERSON; ZACHARY LATIOLAIS, Plaintiffs - Appellees
v.
BLESSEY MARINE SERVICES, INCORPORATED, Defendant - Appellant

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

For KEITH COFFIN, on behalf of himself and others similarly situated, ERIC JONES, JOSE L. RANGEL, JOSH FOX, GREGORY ROBINSON, JASON J. VILLAREAL, DUSTIN AKINS, MASON FULKERSON, ZACHARY LATIOLAIS, Plaintiffs - Appellees: Mark Joseph Oberti, Oberti Sullivan, L.L.P., Houston, TX.

For BLESSEY MARINE SERVICES, INCORPORATED, Defendant - Appellant: Steven Franklin Griffith, Jr., Matthew Charles Juneau, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C., New Orleans, LA.

For AMERICAN MARITIME ASSOCIATION, Amicus Curiae: Jane Blair Jacobs, Klein, Zelman, Rothermel, Jacobs & Schess, L.L.P., New York, NY; James C. Winton, Baker & Hostetler, L.L.P., Houston, TX.

For AMERICAN WATERWAYS OPERATORS, Amicus Curiae: Lynn Elizabeth Blais, Austin, TX.

Before JOLLY, HIGGINBOTHAM, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 277

E. GRADY JOLLY, Circuit Judge:

Blessey Marine Services, Inc. (" Blessey" ) brings this interlocutory appeal challenging the district court's denial of its motion for summary judgment. The district court declined to decide as a matter of law whether nine individual plaintiffs (collectively the " Plaintiffs" ), former vessel-based tankermen on Blessey barges, who brought suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act (" FLSA" ) seeking overtime pay, were exempt from the FLSA as seamen.[1] Although the district court conditionally certified a class action, only eleven individuals joined, and the parties decided to proceed individually.

Blessey produced extensive evidence during discovery suggesting that the Plaintiffs' loading and unloading duties were done as part of the vessel crew and aided the seaworthiness of the vessel, and at the close of discovery it moved for summary judgment. In response, the Plaintiffs largely ignored responding to Blessey's evidence and arguments, and countered that loading and unloading a vessel is nonseaman work as a matter of law, a question that was decided by our opinion in Owens v. SeaRiver Maritime, Inc., 272 F.3d 698 (5th Cir. 2001). The Plaintiffs argued that Owens forecloses any factual inquiry into the nature and character of loading and unloading duties. The district court accepted this interpretation of Owens and concluded that loading and unloading the vessel was in and of itself, without regard to attachment to a specific vessel as seamen

Page 278

for other purposes, nonseaman work as a matter of law. It set the case for trial so that a jury could determine whether those duties were a substantial amount of the Plaintiffs' overall work.

Our review of the applicable law and record evidence leads us to a contrary conclusion; we believe that the district court misapplied Owens. Furthermore, the record establishes that these vessel-based tankermen performed only seaman work, making them exempt from the FLSA's overtime provisions. Accordingly, we VACATE the district court's denial of summary judgment and REMAND the case to the district court for entry of judgment in favor of Blessey.

I.

We begin with a discussion of the relevant facts, which are largely undisputed. Blessey's business primarily consists of shipping liquid cargo along inland and oceanic waterways. Blessey uses a system of equipment called a unit tow, which consists of a towboat and two tank barges, to ship the liquid. The towboat contains the navigation controls, machinery space, and propulsion, and it pushes the barges through the waterway. Meanwhile, the barges are connected to the towboat through a series of lines and wires. Each Blessey barge consists of several separate tanks that can be used for storing liquid, and loading and unloading such a barge is a complex process.

The unit tow is manned by a crew that lives and works on the towboat for a designated period of time (called a hitch). Typically, crew members work for 20 days on a unit tow followed by 10 days off (called a 2-for-1 day hitch). Each day, a crew member generally works two six-hour shifts. Crew sizes may vary from as few as four to as many as ten people.

The crew consists of a " wheelman," a pilot, tankermen, and deckhands. The " wheelman" is usually a captain or relief captain, and all members of the crew work at his or her direction. A " tankerman" has gained deckhand experience and received required training in the loading and unloading of liquid cargo from a barge. Blessey's tankermen are vessel-based and share the nineteen duties that deckhands perform along with various additional tasks related both to the maintenance of the barges and the loading and unloading process. The parties agree that most of these tasks are seaman work.[2] Relevant here, Blessey requires its tankermen to perform the loading and unloading process for the unit tow. Thus, the tankermen both load and unload the barges and perform other tasks related to the loading and unloading process.[3] The Plaintiffs argue

Page 279

that these categories of duties are nonseaman work, while acknowledging their many other duties are seaman work.

The Plaintiffs typically worked as seamen aboard a vessel for approximately 84 hours during a seven-day period and were paid a " day rate," or a flat daily sum. They were not paid overtime for any work, as is customary and lawful with respect to seamen.

II.


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