On Wednesday, January 7, 2015, the Sixth Circuit issued a published opinion in Ruffin v. MotorCity Casino, affirming the district court’s decision that security guards at MotorCity Casino were not entitled to overtime payments under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. 207(a). In doing so, the Sixth Circuit held that the guards’ meal breaks were not compensable under the FLSA, even though MotorCity required them to stay on casino property, monitor their two-way radios, and respond in case of an emergency. Although the proposition that compensable work requires more than simple radio monitoring is not novel, the Sixth Circuit’s rationale—as well as the standards set forth in the opinion—are nonetheless important for employers and employees alike.
The security guards filed suit against MotorCity in 2012, claiming that they were entitled to overtime pay because MotorCity required them to “work” during their paid lunch breaks. According to the guards, who were regularly scheduled to work weekly 40-hour shifts, mandatory 15-minute meetings prior to each shift were compensable, entitling them to overtime pay on the additional 1.25 hours under the FLSA. The crux of this claim was that the guards’ 30-minute paid meal breaks actually constituted “work” since MotorCity restricted their actions during the breaks. The guards highlighted that during their meal breaks, they could not leave casino property, have food delivered to the casino, or receive visitors. Further, they were required to monitor their radios during meals, which exposed them to constant, work-related chatter. Also, the guards were required to respond to emergencies. A guard who did not respond to a mid-meal emergency was subject to discipline.
The district court granted summary judgment for MotorCity, determining that monitoring the radio was a de minimis activity—not a substantial duty performed predominantly for the casino’s benefit. Because the meal periods were non-compensable, the court ruled that MotorCity could offset the time that the guards spent on their paid meal breaks against the time they spent attending unpaid, but compensable roll-call meetings. The guards were thus not entitled to relief on their overtime claim because they worked only 38.75 hours per week. Based on “the totality of the circumstances,” the Sixth Circuit affirmed.
Under the FLSA, to determine whether time is compensable, a court will evaluate whether an employee spends the time “predominantly for the employer’s benefit.” The Sixth Circuit looked to three factors under this test, ultimately concluding that no reasonable jury could find that the guards’ meal periods predominantly benefited MotorCity. First, the Court considered whether the guards were engaged in the performance of substantial duties during their meal breaks. It found that they were not, stressing that they spent their breaks “adequately and comfortably,” by eating, reading, socializing, and using their phones to conduct personal business and surf the Internet. Second, the Court considered whether the casino’s business regularly interrupted the meal breaks. It found that the breaks were rarely interrupted, emphasizing that 3 guards alleged a total of only 11 interrupted meal periods over a collective 18 years of employment. Third, the Court considered the guards’ inability to leave the casino’s property during meal breaks. It found that the casino did not take advantage of the employee’s presence on the premises, as the guards spent their breaks “doing exactly what one might expect an off-duty employee to do on a meal break.” Based on these factors—and, thus, the “totality of the circumstances”—the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court.
Although there may be a case where monitoring a radio qualifies as a substantial job duty in the future, the Sixth Circuit stated simply that “this is not that case.” Going forward, employees and employers will need to keep the totality of the circumstances in mind. Employees seeking overtime pay will have the burden to prove that their time is spent predominantly for the employer’s benefit.