Ruling that ROV technician qualified as ‘seaman’ reversed

A federal district court erroneously concluded as a matter of law that an employee who piloted a remotely operated (underwater) vehicle (ROV) aboard a vessel used to provide services for offshore oil and gas drilling operations was exempt from the overtime provisions of the FLSA as a “seaman,” ruled the Fifth Circuit. This case presented an issue of first impression: whether ROV Technicians are seamen under the FLSA. Noting that ROV Technicians have a completely separate command structure apart from the captain of the vessel, only occasionally assisted with navigation, and were not responsible for maintaining and servicing the vessel, the appeals court concluded that it was inappropriate to grant the employer’s motion for summary judgment.
The employee worked from May 12, 2009, to October 12, 2015, as an ROV Technician and ROV Supervisor for a company that ran a ROV business for offshore applications. ROV’s are generally used to perform tasks that otherwise could not be performed by human divers because of depth or water conditions. ROV Technicians work aboard an ROV support vessel. Although the ROV command center is located on the support vessel, technicians are not mixed with the support vessel’s crew, and cannot see whether any navigational issues are affecting the support vessel. Additionally, technicians take no part in the upkeep of the vessel. They are also subject to a chain of command separate and apart from that of the support vessel.
On October 30, 2015, the employee sued the employer for alleged violations of the overtime provisions of the FLSA. The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that the employee was exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions because he qualified as a “seaman” under the Act. On February 25, 2016, the district court granted the employer’s motion. After the employee’s motion for reconsideration was denied, this appeal ensued.

Seaman defined

This case presented an issue of first impression: whether ROV Technicians are seamen under the FLSA. An employee is a seaman when the following criteria are met: “(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,” 29 C.F.R. 783.31. The court 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.”
Here, the district court seemingly equated the ROVs with “vessels” and concluded that the employee’s “direct[ion]” and “command” of the ROVs satisfied the first prong of the seaman definition. But there was no evidence to suggest that the ROVs were vessels. The only “vessel” in this case was the ROV Support Vessel. According to the employee, he was not subject to the support vessel’s chain of command and did not report to the support vessel’s captain. However, there was contrary testimony that he did report to the captain. This competing testimonial evidence precluded summary judgment as to the first prong.

Work aboard support vessel

The second prong asks whether the “employee’s service is primarily offered to aid the vessel as a means of transportation.” This inquiry concentrates on the duties of an employee. In this instance, the employee lived on the ROV Support Vessel and operated the attached ROVs in the water to complete industrial tasks. Although he occasionally communicated GPS coordinates to the captain of the support vessel, he did not otherwise help ensure that the support vessel navigated safely or even in any particular manner from point A to point B.
The appeals court rejected the employer’s argument that because the ROVs are attached to the ROV Support Vessel, any navigation, maintenance, service, and repair of those vehicles is essentially done to the vessel itself. No case law affirmatively supported this position. Although certain components of the ROV system are structurally welded to the support vessel, the ROVs themselves appear to only be connected temporarily by tethers. Accordingly, the court declined to equate maintenance, repair, or navigation of superficially attached machinery with maintenance, repair, or navigation of the support vessel.
As a result, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the district court erred in granting the employer’s motion for summary judgment that the seaman exemption applied. (Halle v. Galliano Marine Service, LLC, 5thCir, 167 LC 36,517.)
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