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Coffman v. Unigroup, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

July 24, 2019

JOHN COFFMAN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNIGROUP, INC., et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          STEVEN D. MERRYDAY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Alleging that their employers failed to pay the minimum wage required by the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 206 and 216(b), John Coffman and David Lesperance sue (Doc. 19) Unigroup and two Unigroup subsidiaries, Mayflower Transit and United Van Lines. The defendants move (Doc. 113) for summary judgment, and the plaintiffs oppose (Doc. 114).

         BACKGROUND

         Under 49 U.S.C. §§ 13102 and 13901, a “motor carrier, ” defined as a person using a motor vehicle to provide services related to the movement of passengers or property, must register with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Section 13902 establishes the requirements governing the FMCSA's issuing that registration, called an “operating authority.” Further, Section 13905(d) permits the FMCSA to suspend or revoke an operating authority. To maintain operating authority - and continue to transport customers' property - a motor carrier must demonstrate “willingness and ability” to comply with the federal trucking regulations, which include commercial driver's license requirements;[1] record-keeping requirements;[2] rules for operating a commercial motor vehicle;[3] restrictions on hours of service;[4] and rules for inspecting, repairing, and maintaining a commercial motor vehicle.[5]

         To balance the administrative cost of acquiring and maintaining an operating authority on one hand with the expense of purchasing, maintaining, and operating a truck on the other hand, the trucking industry has developed a practice of “leasing.”[6]A “lease, ” according to 49 C.F.R. § 376.2(e), is a “contract or arrangement in which the owner [of a motor vehicle] grants the use of [the motor vehicle] . . . for a specified period of time to a [motor carrier possessing operating authority] for use in the regulated transportation of property, in exchange for compensation.” In other words, an “independent owner-operator”[7] can lease a truck to a motor carrier, and the motor carrier can allow that operator to transport property under the motor carrier's operating authority.

         The plaintiffs are “independent owner-operators.” (Doc. 19 at ¶ 5) The defendants are two motor carriers (Mayflower and United) - also called “household-goods carriers, ” “van lines, ” or “moving companies” - and their parent company (Unigroup). (Doc. 19 at ¶¶ 2, 29, 32-34; Doc. 113-2 at ¶¶ 3-4; Doc. 128-1 at 3)[8] Both Mayflower and United possess an operating authority. (Doc. 113-2 at ¶¶ 4, 12, 13; Doc. 128-1 at 10-11, 23)

         Between the plaintiffs and the defendants stood three middlemen: McCollister's Transportation Systems, Hilldrup Transfer and Storage, and Planes Moving & Storage of Indianapolis. These “Agents, ” who are not parties in this action, are independently owned moving companies.[9]

         The defendants entered an “Agency Agreement” with each Agent. Each Agency Agreement authorizes the Agent to “provide transportation services for [the defendants] in interstate commerce and do so under the [defendants'] federal [operating] authorities.” (Doc. 113-2 at ¶ 5) Further, each Agency Agreement renders the Agent “responsible for providing all transportation services related to the shipment of household goods, including providing van operators to perform driving and moving services.” (Doc. 113-2 at ¶ 6)

         In accord with “Independent Contractor Operating Agreements” (ICOAs), both plaintiffs operated their trucks for an Agent. David Lesperance agreed to an ICOA with McCollister's (Doc. 113-5), and John Coffman agreed to an ICOA with Hilldrup (Doc. 113-7) and another ICOA with Planes (Doc. 113-8). Under the McCollister's-Lesperance ICOA, Lesperance agreed to lease his truck to McCollister's. (Doc. 113-5 at 5; Doc. 136-2 at 10) Although the Hilldrup-Coffman ICOA includes a leasing term that is identical to the leasing term in the McCollister's-Lesperance ICOA, Coffman denies having leased his truck to Hilldrup. (Doc. 136-1 at 38) Coffman testifies that Planes purchased his truck. (Doc. 136-1 at 60-62)

         Ultimately, the plaintiffs and the defendants lacked a contract with each other. Under the ICOAs, the plaintiffs “leased” their trucks to, and provided moving services for, the Agents. And in accord with the Agency Agreements, the defendants authorized the Agents to transport household goods under the defendants' operating authorities. By virtue of these engagements - between the plaintiffs and the Agents and between the Agents and the defendants - the plaintiffs transported customers' household goods under the defendants' operating authorities.

         DISCUSSION

         Under 29 U.S.C. § 206, the FLSA protects workers by obligating “employers” to pay “employees” a minimum wage. Rutherford Food Corp. v. McComb, 331 U.S. 722, 727 (1947); Scantland v. Jeffry Knight, Inc., 721 F.3d 1308, 1311 (11th Cir. 2013). Section 216(b) creates a private right of action for an “employee” of an “employer” who fails to pay a minimum wage. A plaintiff who alleges that a defendant failed to pay a minimum wage bears the burden of proving an employee-employer relation between the parties. Reich v. ConAgra, Inc., 987 F.2d 1357, 1360 (8th Cir. 1993) (citing Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680, 686-87 (1946)) (“[The defendant] correctly points out that the [plaintiff] has the burden of proof on the threshold issue of whether an employer-employee relationship exists with regard to the activities in question”); Freeman v. Key Largo Vol. Fire & Rescue Dept., Inc., 841 F.Supp.2d 1274, 1278 (S.D. Fla. 2012) (King, J.) (“individuals seeking compensation pursuant to the FLSA bear the initial burden of proving that an employer-employee relationship exists”) (citation and quotations omitted).

         The FLSA defines particularly “employee” and “employer, ” and the FLSA's protection extends only to an “employee” working for an “employer.” Scantland, 721 F.3d at 1311. Section 203(e)(1) defines an “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer, ” and Section 203(d) explains that “[e]mployer includes any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee . . . .” “Employ, ” according to Section 203(g), means “to suffer or permit to work.” Although broad, these definitions are not broad enough to permit an independent contractor to enjoy the FLSA's protections. Scantland, 721 F.3d at 1311 (citing Rutherford Food, 331 U.S. at 788-89).

         Moving for summary judgment, the defendants argue that the plaintiffs were independent contractors who lacked entitlement to a minimum wage under the FLSA. (Doc. 113 at 16-23) Whether a plaintiff is an “employee” or an independent contractor depends on “the economic reality of the relationship between the alleged employee and the alleged employer and whether that relationship demonstrates dependence.” Scantland, 721 F.3d at 1311 (quotations and citations omitted). Six “factors . . . guide[] the economic reality test”:

(1) the nature and degree of the alleged employer's control as to the manner in which the work is ...

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