Stubblefield v. West Yellowstone

Stubblefield v. West Yellowstone, 2013 MT 78 (March 26, 2013) (5-0) (Wheat, J.)

Issue: Whether substantial credible evidence supported the jury verdict in favor of the Town on the plaintiff police officers’ FLSA claim.

Short Answer: Yes.

Affirmed

Facts: The three plaintiffs are police officers in the Town of West Yellowstone. The plaintiffs relocated to West Yellowstone primarily because of its proximity to recreational opportunities; however, they contend the Town’s on-call policy up until 2009 was so restrictive that they had no time for personal activities between their shifts. The Town generally employs four police officers. One is on duty at all times, with one working 6 am-6 pm and another 6 pm-6 am. Officers work three 12-hour shifts one week and four the next, totaling 84 hours of work every two weeks. Until a change in the collective bargaining agreement in March 2009, each officer was also required to be on call for 12 hours immediately preceding his next shift. The on-call officer provided backup as needed for crimes in progress, or at the responding officer’s discretion. While on call, the officers had to carry a cell phone, stay within service areas, and be ready to respond immediately. If actually called out, the officer received a minimum of 2.5 hours of overtime pay, but were not otherwise compensated for their time spent on call. One officer was called out 18 times in 609 on-call shifts, another three times in 234 on-call shifts, and the third six times in 186 on-call shifts.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The plaintiffs filed suit against the Town under the Fair Labor Standards Act, alleging they should be compensated for the time they were on call, not just the time they were called out. During trial, the plaintiffs testified of the adverse effect of the on-call requirement on their personal lives, including their ability to sleep, and the benefits that accrued to the Town from their being on-call. The Town elicited testimony that officers sometimes failed to show up when called, or were late, and suffered no consequences. The Town also claimed the infrequent nature of calls lessened the burden of on-call shifts. The jury returned a verdict for the Town. The district court denied plaintiffs’ motion to amend the judgment and for a new trial, and the plaintiffs appeal. The Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: The Court’s review is de novo, asking whether there is substantial credible evidence in the record – less than a preponderance, but more than a mere scintilla — to support the jury’s verdict. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that on-call waiting time is compensable if the waiting time is spent primarily for the benefit of the employer and his business, an issue that depends on all the circumstances of the case. An employee who is engaged to wait must be compensated, but an employee who is waiting to be engaged does not. Several factors are relevant in making this determination. The jury was instructed as to these factors, told that none was dispositive, and the jury determined the plaintiffs’ time was not compensable. Overturning a jury’s verdict requires a showing that there was no credible evidence to support the verdict. That is not the case here. Plaintiffs next argue that a similar FLSA claim brought by EMTs in West Yellowstone, which resulted in a bench trial verdict for those plaintiffs, requires reversal of this verdict. Some of the facts the Sands court considered are similar to the facts here. However, Sands was a bench trial, and involved a different collective bargaining agreement. If EMTs were late to a call, they were disciplined, unlike the police officers. The EMTs could not trade on-call shifts, whereas the police officers could. Significantly, the EMTs were called out about 50% of the time they were on call, while the police officers were rarely called out. The jury did not consider the cases identical, and the Court will not substitute its judgment for the jury’s.