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LCW Partners Liz Arce And Geoff Sheldon, And Associates Victor Gonzalez And Alex Wong Secured Dismissal Of FLSA Lawsuit
In spring of 2020, a county hired a class of new and lateral firefighter trainees. The county required both groups of trainees to attend the county’s firefighter training academy before they could work as full-time, regular firefighters. In March 2020, just a few days before the academy was slated to begin, California’s Governor issued his statewide “stay-at-home” order in response to COVID-19. Given the uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus at the time, and the need to safeguard the health and safety of all, the county gave the recruits the option of quarantining with training staff in a hotel six nights a week, at the county’s expense, while they attended the academy under a compressed training schedule. Those trainees who wanted to proceed with their academy training signed a hotel agreement wherein they agreed to comply with quarantine restrictions during the training.
After completing the academy, one of the trainees who attend the academy filed a collective action lawsuit claiming he and other “similarly situated” trainees were entitled to compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for the time spent staying at the hotel during the academy. The trainee originally filed the suit in state court, but LCW succeeded, on the county’s behalf, to remove the case to federal court. The U.S. District Court first declined to accept jurisdiction, but LCW appealed that issue to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and won.
Once in federal court, the trainee argued that he and the other “similarly situated” trainees should have been paid 24 hours a day, instead of only for the 8 hours per day they spent at the academy. He claimed the time spent at the hotel was “integral and indispensable” to the participation in the academy.
After LCW defeated the trainee’s motion to proceed as a collective action, the county filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the case should be dismissed because the time spent in the hotel did not count as “hours worked” under the FLSA. The trainee filed a cross-motion for summary judgement to argue the opposite.
The U.S. District Court agreed with the county that the time spent at the hotel was not compensable time because the trainees were free to choose “personal pursuits” there. The evidence showed, among other things, that: the trainees were not required to study during this time; none of the training staff instructed the trainee who sued that he had to study while in the hotel; and the trainee spent most of his time at the hotel sleeping or making phone and video calls to his family.
The Court found that the time was non-compensable for the additional reason that there was an agreement in place regarding the trainees’ compensation. That agreement was reasonable for several reasons, including that: the county offered both regular and overtime pay; trainees were still able to pursue “personal activities” on site; the trainees were not “on-call”; and the fact of the statewide stay-at-home order. The Court granted the county’s motion for summary judgment, denied the trainee’s cross-motion, and dismissed the case.