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In this case, plaintiff sued the defendants under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FSLA”) for unpaid overtime. The defendants ran a remotely operated vehicle business for offshore applications. Plaintiff was employed as an ROV technician and supervisor. ROVs are unoccupied mechanical devices used, among other things, to fix, service, and repair offshore, underwater drilling rigs. Plaintiff navigated and controlled ROVs aboard an ROV Support Vessel from the ROV command center, to which the ROVs remain tethered while in use. Although the ROV command center was located aboard the support vessel, the technicians do not mix with the vessel’s cure and are considered to be “passengers” or “third parties.” In addition, ROV technicians are subject to a separate chain of command from that of the support vessel and report to land-based mangers. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that plaintiff was exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(6) because he qualified as a seaman under the Act. The district court granted the motion and the plaintiff appealed.

The Fifth Circuit noted that definition of a seaman in the Jones Act is not equivalent to that in the FLSA because the Jones Act is interpreted broadly while the FLSA exemptions are narrowly construed. Under the FLSA, an employee is considered a seaman when: (1) the employee is subject to the authority, direction, and control of the master; and (2) the employee’s service is primarily offered to aid the vessel as a means of transportation, provided that the employee does not perform a substantial amount of different work. Per Department of Labor regulations, work other than seaman work becomes substantial if it occupies more than 20 percent of the time worked by the employee during the workweek. The Court noted that it must “evaluate an employee’s duties based upon the character of the work he actually performs and not on what it is called or the place where it is performed.” Because “what each employee actually does” determines how the FLSA applies to him, “application of the seaman exemption generally depends on the facts of each case.

The Fifth Circuit applied the facts to the two pronged test of whether someone is employed as a seaman under the FLSA. Under the first prong, whether the employee performs as a “master or subject to the authority, direction and control of the master aboard a vessel” the Court determined that the only vessel was the ROV support vessel and the plaintiff was not subject to the support vessels chain of command. This precluded summary judgment under the first prong.

The Court found the second prong, whether the employee’s service is primarily offered to aid in the vessel as a mean of transportation, dispositive in the matter. The Court noted that the critical issue in analyzing this prong is determining whether the primary purpose of the particular individual’s work is safe navigation of the ship. The Court then looked to its decision in Walling v. W.D. Haden Co., 153 F.2d 196 (5th Cir. 1946). In that case, employees engaged in dredging shell deposits were stationed on a dredge boat for months at a time. The court noted that even though the dredgemen were involved in some work of the “nautical kind,” the dominant employment was clearly the industrial one. As a result, the Walling court held that they were not seaman under the FLSA. The Fifth Circuit found plaintiff’s work similar to that of the dredgmen in Walling in that its purpose was primarily an industrial one and held that defendant was unable to establish as a matter of law that the seaman exemption applied.