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Court Revises Ruling on Sleeper Berth Issue in Carrier’s Favor

By:  R. Eddie Wayland, TCA General Counsel

A federal trial court in Nebraska recently revised a previous decision in a case involving the issue of whether time spent by truck driving students in truck sleeper berths needed to be paid by a motor carrier. The court ruled that the plain language of the applicable federal regulations only limits non-compensable sleeper berth time for truck drivers and their assistants to 8 hours in a 24-hour cycle where it can be shown that the truck driver or assistant was continuously on duty. The court thereby concluded that the regulations create a presumption that drivers are not on duty when in a sleeper berth. This is a major ruling on a hot legal issue in the trucking industry.

Background

The plaintiffs in this case are a certified class of approximately 50,000 current and former student drivers who participated in the carrier’s student driver program. The drivers contend that the carrier improperly designated legally compensable time as “off-duty” time thereby under-compensating the drivers in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Of specific interest to this article is the drivers’ claim that they were entitled to compensation for time spent in the sleeper berths of their trucks.
In a previous ruling in this same case, the court concluded that time spent by the drivers “in sleeper berths in excess of 8 hours in a 24-hour cycle was compensable.” The case was then reassigned to a new judge and the new judge reconsidered this ruling.

Ruling

This case was decided based upon a review of the applicable federal regulations. Two federal regulations are at the heart of this decision. First, federal regulation 29 C.F.R. § 785.22 governs how an employee must be compensated under the FLSA when “on duty” for 24 hours or more. The court found that this regulation permits an employer, upon express or implied agreement with the employee, to exclude 8 hours of sleep time from employees who are “on duty” for 24 hours or more.
Second, federal regulation 29 C.F.R. § 785.41 provides in relevant part: “Any work which an employee is required to perform while traveling must … be counted as hours worked. An employee who drives a truck … or an employee who is required to ride therein as an assistant or helper, is working while riding, except during bona fide meal periods or when he is permitted to sleep in adequate facilities furnished by the employer.”

The court which originally ruled on this issue found that these two regulations, read together, “mean that period logged in a sleeper berth could be excluded from compensation” but that “the excludable time was limited to 8 hours.” The court further stated that, “[t]he two regulations, when read on their face, are ambiguous as to whether one or both apply to truck sleeper berths while on a tour of duty.” The court’s new ruling disagreed with that conclusion and found that when read in context with another regulation, there was no ambiguity.

The court accordingly revised the ruling as follows: “the Court concludes that under the plain language of the regulatory scheme, § 785.22 limits non-compensable sleeper berth time for truck drivers and their assistants to 8 hours in a 24-hour cycle only where it can be shown that the truck driver or assistant was continuously on duty.” Thus, the court concluded that the regulations create a presumption that drivers are not on duty when in a sleeper berth. The court noted that the remaining factual issue in the case is whether the drivers were required to be on duty even when in the sleeper berths.

Takeaway

This case deals with an issue that is of critical importance for motor carriers. Compensation related to sleeper berth time is an issue that is being heavily litigated throughout the country at this time. Carriers would be wise to pay close attention to this case as it moves forward. Consideration of reviewing and possible revisions to existing company policies and practices in this regard may also be warranted.

R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at rew@kingballow.com. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.

March 28, 2017

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