Seymore v. Metson Marine, Inc. offers guidance on 7th day overtime, on call work

Plaintiffs worked consecutive 14-day “hitches” on Metson's ships, providing emergency clean up of oil spills and other hazardous chemical spills off the California coast.  This arrangement gave rise to questions about how Metson calculated pay for the seventh consecutive workday in a week and compensation for employees when on call.  In Seymore v. Metson Marine, Inc. (February 28, 2011), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division Three) reversed an order granting summary judgment in favor of Metson.

On the seventh day of overtime issue, Metson set the start time of the workweek so that employees only worked one "workweek" of seven consecutive days in the 14-day hitch.  On an issue of first impression, the Court rejected that manipulation:

Metson's attempt to evade the requirements of sections 500 and 510 is no different from the method struck down in the Wal-Mart case. Under the plain language of section 510, plaintiffs are entitled to premium pay “on the seventh day of work in any one workweek” and according to section 500, a workweek is defined to mean “any seven consecutive days, starting with the same calendar day each week.” The clear intent of this statute is to provide premium pay for employees who are required to work a seventh consecutive day in a “fixed and regularly” occurring workweek. Metson's attempt to circumvent this requirement cannot be condoned. (Huntington Memorial Hospital v. Superior Court (2005) 131 Cal.App.4th 893, 910 [“The bottom line is this: An employer may not engage in a subterfuge or artifice designed to evade the overtime laws”].)

Slip op., at 5.  The Court found a DLSE memorandum on the issue to be in potential conflict with the statutory language and disregarded it.

Turning to whether Metson's control was sufficient to establish an obligation to pay for on-call time, the Court reviewed the evidence de novo, finding one fact in particular to be the key determinant, the obligation to sleep on Metson's premises:

Metson cites a number of cases in which courts have concluded that on-call employees able to engage in such personal activities and subject to even shorter response time requirements were not entitled to compensation. (See Gomez, supra, 173 Cal.App.4th 508 [30-minute telephone response time]; Dinges v. Sacred Heart St. Mary’s Hosps. (7th Cir. 1999) 164 F.3d 1056 [7-minute response time]; Bright v. Houston Northwest Medical Center Survivor, Inc. (5th Cir. 1991) 934 F.2d 671 [20-minute response time].) However, there is one critical difference between each of those cases and the present situation —in none of those cases was the employee required to sleep at the employer's premises. In Bright, the court observed that the situation there was “wholly different” from cases in which employees were required to serve their on-call time at the employer's premises because “Bright did not have to remain on or about his employer's place of business, or some location designated by his employer, but was free to be at his home or at any place or places he chose, without advising his employer, subject only to the restrictions that he be reachable by beeper, not be intoxicated, and be able to arrive at the hospital in 'approximately' twenty minutes.” (934 F.2d at p. 676.)

Slip op., at 10.  (As an aside, I find it amusing that two cases I handled, one on the prevailing side and one on the losing side, factored into the Court's discussion of this on-call issue.  Glad I didn't completely screw it up for the plaintiffs here.)  In any event, after an extended discussion of how California parallels but does not exactly follow FLSA precedent surrounding this issue, the Court then spent a moment discussing the fact that, in California, an employer may agree with an employee to designate eight sleeping hours as uncompensated time when an employee works a 24-hour shift.  The Court concluded by suggesting that Metson's arguments about the need for revised exceptions to current wage orders (or a new wage order) were worthy of consideration but did not provide a basis for the Court to disregard existing law.