People For the American Way Foundation

Biden Judge Writes Unanimous Opinion That Detainees Who Work Outside Prison May Be Entitled to Minimum Wage Protection

Biden Judge Writes Unanimous Opinion That Detainees Who Work Outside Prison May Be Entitled to Minimum Wage Protection

Judge Toby Heytens, nominated to the Fourth Circuit by President Biden, wrote a unanimous opinion that reversed a Trump-nominated district judge and held that incarcerated people who work outside prison walls may be entitled to minimum wages and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The workers in this case received only $20 per day for nine to ten hour shifts at a recycling center, for which other workers received minimum wages and overtime pay. The May 2024 case is  Scott v Baltimore County.


What is the background of this case?

 Baltimore County has operated a recycling center that has utilized two types of workers: The first included “temporary workers provided by a staffing agency,” who were paid minimum wages and overtime in accord with FLSA. The second type comprised people incarcerated at the Baltimore County Detention Center community corrections program. They received only $20 oer day for nine to ten hours of work.

These “work detail” detainees were also treated differently than other detainees who worked. “Work release” detainees worked at outside jobs they had prior to detention or obtained through “workforce development” programs. These workers receive minimum wages and overtime.

Michael Scott worked at the recycling center while “serving a short sentence at the detention center.” He filed a class action on behalf of himself and other detainees contending that the County, which operated the recycling center, violated the FLSA by paying him and others so much less than other recycling center workers and people on work release. The case was assigned to Judge Stephanie Gallagher, who was nominated to the district court by then-President Trump. Gallagher ruled on summary judgment against Scott and other detainees and held that the FLSA did not apply to them. They appealed to the Fourth Circuit.


How did Judge Heytens and the Fourth Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?

 Judge Heytens wrote a unanimous opinion that reversed the lower court and ruled that, at least under some circumstances, detainees like Scott must be paid minimum wages and overtime under the FLSA. They sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.

Judge Heytens explained that courts are generally “skeptical” of FLSA claims brought by detainees, particularly for work done behind prison walls. But there is no rule, he went on, that such workers “cannot be covered under the Act when they work outside their detention facility’s walls and for someone other than their immediate detainer,” as occurred in this case.

After carefully considering the statutory text and prior precedent, Heytens concluded that three factors should determine whether workers like Scott are covered by the FLSA and should receive minimum wages and overtime: 1) whether the relationship between the workers and their “putative employer” had the “hallmarks of a ‘ true employer-employee relationship;’” 2)whether the purposes of the FLSA call for its application in the particular case; and 3) whether the putative employer had a “rehabilitative, rather than a pecuniary interest” in the workers.

Judge Heytens ruled that the district court should consider these factors and make at least an initial ruling based on them as to whether FLSA applies. He did note that several factors and types of evidence appear to support Scott’s position. These included evidence suggesting that “the recycling center exercised the kind of control typical” of an employment relationship; the fact that the Act “aims” to  protect “all workers;” and comparisons between the workers at the recycling center and those on work-release programs. Emphasizing its role as a “court of review,” the court sent the case back to the district court to consider all these factors “in the first instance,” subject to possible appeal.

Judge Heytens’ opinion is obviously important to Scott and the other detainees who worked at the recycling center and seek fair treatment and compensation for their work. It also sets an important precedent concerning the application of the FLSA and minimum wage and overtime rules to detainees who work outside prison walls. This is especially so in the Fourth Circuit, which includes Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North and South Carolina. In addition, the ruling serves as a reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded judges like Judge Heytens to our federal courts.