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Watkins v. City of Montgomery

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

December 24, 2014

ROOSEVELT WATKINS, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
THE CITY OF MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA, Defendant-Appellee

Page 1281

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. D.C. Docket No. 2:11-cv-00158-MEF-WC.

For Roosevelt Watkins, Plaintiff - Appellant: W. Lee Gresham III, James Callen Sparrow, Heninger Garrison Davis, LLC, Birmingham, AL; William Richard Davis, Davis & Herrington, LLC, Montgomery, AL.

For City of Montgomery, Defendant - Appellee: Wallace Mills, Law Offices of Wallace D. Mills, Montgomery, AL.

For International Association of Fire Fighters, Amicus Curiae: Thomas A. Woodley, Woodley & McGillivary, Washington, DC.

Before ED CARNES, Chief Judge, JORDAN and ROSENBAUM, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 1282

ROSENBAUM, Circuit Judge

Fifty-four fire suppression lieutenants employed by the City of Montgomery, Alabama (the " City" ), contend that they are entitled to overtime compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 207(a) (the " FLSA" or the " Act" ). But a jury has spoken and has rejected their claims.

After careful review of the record, we find that the issues that the jury determined were properly before it and that the jury's conclusions on those issues were reasonable, in light of the evidence presented during the trial. We further find that the district court sufficiently instructed the jury before the jury reached its verdict denying the lieutenants' claims. For these reasons, we affirm.

I.

The lieutenants challenge two particular rulings of the district court. First, they assert that the district court erred in denying their motion for judgment as a matter of law because the jury verdict was wrong as a matter of law. Second, they contend that the district court incorrectly refused to give the jury a particular instruction that the lieutenants requested. We consider each argument in turn.

II. The Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

We review de novo a district court's denial of judgment as a matter of law. Bianchi v. Roadway Express, Inc., 441 F.3d 1278, 1282 (11th Cir. 2006) (per curiam). Where a legally sufficient basis exists for a reasonable jury to find for a particular party on an issue, judgment as a matter of law is not proper. See Cook ex rel. Estate of Tessier v. Sheriff of Monroe Cnty., Fla., 402 F.3d 1092, 1114 (11th Cir. 2005).

A.

The plaintiff lieutenants claim that the City was required to pay them overtime because they were not exempt from the FLSA's overtime-pay requirements. A general understanding of the FLSA's overtime-pay requirements, therefore, is helpful to put into context the background of this case. For this reason, we start our consideration of this appeal with a review of the applicable parts of the FLSA.

Page 1283

The FLSA is designed to ensure " all able-bodied working men and women a fair day's pay for a fair day's work." Gregory v. First Title of Am., Inc., 555 F.3d 1300, 1307-08 (11th Cir. 2009) (per curiam) (citation omitted). To accomplish this goal, the FLSA requires that overtime be paid to employees who fall under the Act, at a rate of one-and-one-half times the employee's base pay. Id. at 1302. Typically, employees are paid overtime when they work more than forty hours in a workweek. Id. Section 207(k) of the Act, however, provides an exception to the forty-hour workweek for " any employee in fire protection activities." 29 U.S.C. § 207(k). Under the Department of Labor (" DOL" ) regulations interpreting § 207(k), employees engaged in fire-protection services must be paid overtime for all time worked over 106 hours in a fourteen-day work period. 29 C.F.R. § 553.230(c).

The Act also creates a number of exemptions from its minimum wage and overtime requirements. As relevant to this case, one such exemption exists for individuals " employed in a bona fide executive . . . capacity." 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). We construe this statutory exemption narrowly, like we construe all other exemptions under the FLSA. Gregory, 555 F.3d at 1302. The employer bears the burden of establishing that it is entitled to an FLSA exemption. Alvarez Perez v. Sanford-Orlando Kennel Club, Inc., 515 F.3d 1150, 1156 (11th Cir. 2008).

An employer wishing to demonstrate that its employee falls under the FLSA's executive exemption must establish that

(1) [the employee is] [c]ompensated on a salary basis at a rate of not less than $455 per week . .., exclusive of board, lodging or other facilities;
(2) [the employee's] primary duty is management of the enterprise in which the employee is employed or of a customarily recognized department or subdivision thereof;
(3) [the employee] customarily and regularly directs the work of two or more other employees; and
(4) [the employee] has the authority to hire or fire other employees or [that the employee's] suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status of other employees are given particular weight.

See 29 C.F.R. § 541.100(a).

The first prong of the executive exemption, known as the " salary basis" test, is at issue here. An employee is considered to be paid on a " salary basis" if

the employee regularly receives each pay period on a weekly, or less frequent basis, a predetermined amount constituting all or part of the employee's compensation, which amount is not subject to reduction because of variations in the quality or quantity of the work performed.

29 C.F.R. § 541.602(a) (emphasis added). This general rule prohibiting deductions from an employee's paycheck is subject to a number of exceptions. Deductions from pay are permissible when the exempt employee (1) is " absent from work for one or more full days for personal reasons, other than sickness or disability" ; (2) is absent from work for " one or more full days occasioned by sickness or disability . . . if the deduction is made in accordance with a bona fide [sick leave] plan" ; (3) is penalized " in good faith for infractions of safety rules of major significance" ; or (4) receives a " disciplinary suspension[] of one or more full days imposed in good faith for infractions of workplace conduct rules." See 29 C.F.R. § 541.602.

Two of these exceptions are at issue here: (1) deductions for violations of safety

Page 1284

rules of major significance and (2) deductions for violations of workplace conduct rules. Safety rules of major significance include " those relating to the prevention of serious danger in the workplace or to other employees, such as rules prohibiting smoking in explosive plants, oil refineries and coal mines." 29 C.F.R. § 541.602(b)(4).

The exception relating to workplace conduct rules was added as a part of the August 2004 amendments to the DOL regulations interpreting the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions. See Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees, 69 Fed. Reg. 22122 (April 23, 2004). We have not yet addressed or otherwise interpreted the term " workplace conduct rules." The preamble to the DOL regulations, however, provides some guidance, noting that the addition of this exception " will permit employers to hold exempt employees to the same standards of conduct as that required of their nonexempt workforce." 69 Fed. Reg. at 22177.

The term " workplace conduct" is not to be construed expansively. Id. Instead, it covers only " serious workplace misconduct like sexual harassment, violence, drug or alcohol violations, or violations of state or federal laws." Id. " [W]orkplace misconduct," in turn, refers to conduct and was not meant to apply to performance or attendance issues. Id. Although the term should be construed narrowly, the rule does not prevent an employer from imposing a disciplinary suspension for misconduct that occurs off the employer's property if the employer has a bona fide rule covering such conduct. Id. Suspensions must be imposed pursuant to a written policy applicable to all employees. 29 C.F.R. § 541.602(b)(5). The written policy need not include an exhaustive list of specific violations that could result in a suspension, but it " should be sufficient to put employees on notice that they could be subject to an unpaid disciplinary suspension." [1] 69 Fed. Reg. at 22177.

B.

1.

Roosevelt Watkins, a lieutenant in the Division of Fire Suppression of the Montgomery Fire Department (" MFD" ), brought a collective ...


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