Eleventh Circuit Rules for Employees on FLSA Enterprise Coverage

In an important decision that will affect countless numbers of small businesses in Florida, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals today rejected the arguments of several employers that they were not subject to “enterprise coverage” under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The decision, Polycarpe v. E&S Landscaping Services, Inc., is bound to lead to an increase in the number of FLSA cases filed against small businesses in Florida – which are already the frequent target of such claims.  I will provide some analysis of the Polycarpe decision in the near future. 

Court Rejects "Ultimate Consumer" Defense to FLSA Enterprise Coverage

A federal court in the Southern District of Florida has rejected the "ultimate consumer" defense to enterprise coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The case is Exime v. E.W. Ventures, Inc., Case No. 08-60099-CIV-SEITZ/O'SULLIVAN (S.D. Fla., December 23, 2008). 

First, some background: To establish coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a plaintiff must show that: (1) she was “engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce”  [individual coverage]; or (2) that she was employed in an enterprise “engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce” [enterprise coverage].  See 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1).

With respect to FLSA enterprise coverage, the relevant provisions are set forth in 29 U.S.C. § 203(s)(1)(A) and 29 C.F.R. § 779.238:

“Enterprise engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce” means an enterprise that --

[H]as employees engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce, or that has employees handling, selling, or otherwise working on goods or materials that have been moved in or produced for commerce by any person; and

[I]s an enterprise whose annual gross volume of sales made or business done is not less than $500,000. . .

29 U.S.C. § 203(s)(1)(A)(i)-(ii).

. . . An enterprise described in [29 U.S.C. § 203(s)(1)] will be considered to have employees engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce. . .if during the annual period which it uses in calculating its annual sales for purposes of the other conditions of these sections, it regularly and recurrently has at least two or more employees engaged in such activities. On the other hand, it is plain that an enterprise that has employees engaged in such activities only in isolated or sporadic occasions, will not meet this condition.

29 C.F.R. § 779.238.

Based on these rules, courts have adopted a two-prong test for enterprise coverage: (1) the enterprise commerce requirement; and (2) the gross sales requirement. Both prongs must be met in order to establish FLSA enterprise coverage.

The "Ultimate Consumer" Defense

The "ultimate consumer" defense asserts that employees' handling of interstate goods or materials cannot be used to establish FLSA enterprise coverage  if the employer is the ultimate consumer of those goods or materials. The defense is derived from 29 U.S.C. § 203(i) and § 203(s)(1)(A)(i), which state as follows:

“Enterprise engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce” means an enterprise that. . .has employees engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce, or that has employees handling, selling, or otherwise working on goods or materials that have been moved in or produced for commerce by any person;

29 U.S.C. § 203(s)(1)(A)(i).

“Goods” means goods (including ships and marine equipment), wares, products, commodities, merchandise, or articles or subjects of commerce of any character, or any part or ingredient thereof, but does not include goods after their delivery into the actual physical possession of the ultimate consumer thereof other than a producer, manufacturer, or processor thereof.

29 U.S.C. § 203(i) (emphasis added).

Judge Rejects "Ultimate Consumer" Defense

In Exime, the employer was a dry cleaning business.  The vast majority of the employer's equipment (dry cleaning machines, pressing machines, boilers, and vans) was manufactured outside Florida.   The chemicals that the employees used were purchased mostly from local retailers.  And the employer served only Florida customers.

Under these facts, the employer argued that to the extent employees handled interstate goods and materials, the employer was the ultimate consumer of those goods and materials, and therefore the employees' handling of such goods and materials could not be used to establish enterprise coverage.

Judge Patricia Seitz rejected this argument, stating in part as follows:

Defendants' argument.... ultimately turns on the assumption that the terms “goods” and “materials” share the same statutory definition. But, in order to accept Defendants' narrow interpretation, it would be necessary to wholly ignore the 1974 amendment to § 203(s)(1)(A)(i), as well as the accompanying Senate Report. That Report provides:

The bill also adds the words “or materials” after the word “goods” [in § 203(s)(1)(A)(i)] to make clear the Congressional intent to include within this additional basis of coverage the handling of goods consumed in the employer's business, as, e.g., the soap used by a laundry. . .S.Rep. No. 93-690, 93rd Cong., 2nd Sess. at 17 (1974) (emphasis added).

Significantly, the specific example cited in the 1974 Senate Report, “e.g., the soap used by a laundry,” demonstrates a clear Congressional intent to expand enterprise jurisdiction to companies whose employees handle interstate materials used in the employer's own business, regardless of whether that employer is the ultimate consumer of those materials. In other words, the additional term “materials” broadens FLSA jurisdiction by substantially constricting the “ultimate consumer” defense now asserted by Defendants....

The "ultimate consumer" defense, read broadly, is a potentially powerful weapon for employers in defense of an FLSA lawsuit. There are many small businesses, such as dry cleaners, that are the ultimate consumers of interstate materials, but who serve only local customers and do not otherwise handle, sell or work on goods in interstate commerce. But under Judge Seitz's narrow reading of the defense, businesses that do not handle, sell or work on interstate goods, but use interstate materials in their operations, are nevertheless covered under the FLSA. It is the rare business indeed that uses only intrastate materials in its operations. Thus, under Judge Seitz's interpretation, the "ultimate consumer" defense is effectively dead.

Is Exime the last word on the "ultimate consumer" defense? Stay tuned.