When is an Employer not an “Employer”? FLSA v. Common Law

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Employer FLSA control common law Alabama Employment Law
The term “employer” has different meanings under the FLSA and common law.

Some British playwrite once wrote:  “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  I’ve always interpreted that line to suggest that names are not nearly as important as substance or context.  The Eleventh Circuit recently issued an entertaining opinion recognizing this important issue in the employment law arena.  See Garcia-Celestino v. Ruize Harvesting, Inc., No. 17-12866, 2018 WL 3652010 (11th Cir. Aug. 2, 2018)(“Garcia-Celestino II“).  In Garcia-Celestino II, the Court was required to examine the intricacies of the term “employer” — and discuss the differences in that term under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the common law.

Judge Rosenbaum began his opinion:  “The English language contains many examples of homonyms —  ‘words that have the same sound and often the same spelling but differ in meaning’ ….”  He then suggested that the terms “employer” and “control” are “legal homonyms” that have “different meanings under the FLSA and the common law.”

Judge Rosenbaum also noted that this was the second time that the case came before the Eleventh Circuit.  Indeed, I wrote about the first Garcia-Celestino opinion, and the significance of control over contract labor here:  Migrant Farm Workers and the FLSA.  In the first Garcia-Celestino opinion, the Eleventh Circuit found that orchard owner Consolidated Citrus was a joint employer under the FLSA with Ruiz Harvesting — the company from which it contracted migrant labor.  But, the court remanded the case to the trial court to determine if Consolidated Citrus was also a joint employer for breach-of-contract purposes under the common law.  The trial court concluded that Consolidated Citrus was an “employer” for purposes of the common law.

Judge Rosenbaum’s opinion in Garcia-Celestino II reversed the trial court and found that Consolidated Citrus was not a joint employer under a breach of contract theory.  In short, Consolidated Citrus was an “employer” for purposes of the FLSA, but not for breach of contract. Under both the FLSA and the common law, “control” over a worker is important for determining whether her or she is employed.  But, the FLSA created “one of the broadest possible delineations of the employer-employee relationship.”  In contrast, a common law analysis “results in a much narrower analytical approach.”  “Under the common law, we must look at only who controls ‘the manner and means’ and ‘the details of the work,’ giving no consideration to ‘mere economic control or control over the end result of the performance.'”

Judge Rosenbaum then conducted an extensive analysis which largely focused on control over the “manner and means” of the migrant workers’ labor.  At the end of that analysis, he (along with Judge Tjoflat and Judge Ungaro) concluded that Consolidated Citrus was not a joint employer of the migrant workers for purposes of the common law.

The Garcia-Celestino saga is a nice microcosm of employment law.  Facts matter.  Claims matter.  The applicable law matters.  Under a single set of facts, a company can be liable as an “employer” under one claim (FLSA), but not liable under another (breach of contract).   With a good understanding of these intricacies, some employers can emerge from a lawsuit smelling like a rose.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *