Supreme Court will not hear spotter drivers’ wage lawsuit

January 25, 2021

Tyson Fisher

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The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a petition filed by a class of Contract Transport Services drivers to hear their case, putting the wage lawsuit to rest.

On Jan. 11, the nation’s highest court decided not to hear the case of Burlaka, et al. v. Contract Transport Services. Burlaka asked the court to hear the case in November after losing an appeal in the Seventh Circuit. The appellate court affirmed a district court’s decision to award the trucking company summary judgment in a case where drivers were seeking overtime pay.

The case dates back to August 2017, when Leonid Burlaka, who was employed as a “spotter” for Contract Transport Services, filed the complaint in a Wisconsin federal district court. According to the complaint, spotters do not drive on public roadways except for when delivering trailers between the manufacturing facility and storage facility.  Those trailers are used only for transporting goods between the two facilities. Transportation of the trailers only occurs within Wisconsin.

Burlaka and other drivers never received overtime pay despite regularly working more than 40 hours during a workweek. Contract Transport Services drivers do have an opportunity to receive a pay-for-performance bonus. Those bonuses are not included when calculating regular pay rate used to compute overtime pay.

In their lawsuit, the drivers claimed that Contract Transport Services violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying them the correct amount of overtime pay.

They argued that they are entitled to overtime pay since “they do not have any involvement on public highways in interstate commerce as drivers; and even though they do not work as drivers’ helpers, loaders or mechanics.”

Contract Transport Services moved to have the case dismissed, which the district court granted in March 2019. In the order, the district court pointed out that hiring drivers involves background checks per Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations, alcohol/controlled substance training and testing records compliant with federal regulations, obtaining a medical certificate, pre-employment screening, certified completion of a driver evaluation, and providing a statement of available on-duty hours. Also, Contract Transport Services has a policy that allows it to call on any drivers, including spotters, to transport goods on public roadways, sometimes crossing state lines.

Truckers who drive wholly in intrastate commerce are entitled to overtime pay. On the other hand, the Motor Carrier Act exempts drivers who haul interstate. However, the Federal Highway Administration has determined that even if a driver has not driven interstate, he or she can still be exempt per the Motor Carrier Act if the carrier engages in interstate commerce and the driver could reasonably be expected to make one of those interstate runs.

In this case, Contract Transport Services spotters routinely dropped off trailers that were soon after transported across state lines by another driver.

Based on company records, the district court determined that the company is an interstate carrier and that the spotters were truckers that were subject to transport interstate freight.

Therefore, the spotters fall within the Motor Carrier Act exemptions.

“Given the interstate nature of Contract Transport Services’ operations and the fact that Contract Transport Services could call upon any of its drivers, including those performing yard-spotting duties, to participate in one leg of the interstate transport of product, the plaintiffs fall squarely within the MCA exemption,” the district court ruled.

Burlaka appealed that decision. Drivers argued that although they would be asked to take over interstate runs, they regularly turned down those requests. Essentially, the drivers signed on to the job with the intention of only driving as spotters. They were never reprimanded by Contract Transport Services for turning down interstate routes. Therefore, they argued, interstate hauls were not actually within the scope of their employment.

The appellate panel was not persuaded. To determine if the spotters are included in the Motor Carrier Act exemption, the appellate court only looked to see if their duties were part of the interstate journey. In this case, they were.

Drivers argued that there was a process in between the two legs of the journey that clearly separated the two job duties. However, the appeals court ruled that “existence of intermediary steps does not sever the connection between the plaintiffs’ driving and the ultimate interstate movement of the goods.”

“The plaintiffs seem to imagine that a continuous journey must resemble a relay race, in which the next driver immediately picks up exactly where the other left off,” the Seventh Circuit opined. “But that is neither how interstate shipments work nor what the MCA requires.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case upholds the appellate court’s affirmation, effectively ending the case. LL

TA Bandag
Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.