“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Eric Murphy argued that the court should reverse a jury verdict against an energy corporation for violating overtime pay and minimum wage requirements of federal and state law. The majority disagreed and affirmed the jury verdict in its August 2020 decision in Hurt v. Commerce Energy, Inc.
Davina Hurt and Dominic Hill filed suit, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, against Commerce Energy and related companies that provide electric power and natural gas to residential and other customers, contending that the corporations were improperly classifying them as outside contractors to avoid paying them minimum wages and overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Ohio state law. The corporations claimed that the workers were independent contractors who were door-to-door solicitors who they paid only on a commission basis. This was despite the fact that, according to the plaintiffs, they were required to attend daily morning meetings before going into the field; they were driven to specified areas in teams led by company supervisors; work breaks were controlled by those supervisors; they were required to adhere to a company dress code, including wearing a shirt that identified the corporation; were subject to company rules that included following a specified script in sales pitches and following specified rules concerning feedback; and some were required to work during specified hours and days.
The compensation they received via commission was very low, well under what they would receive if they got minimum wages and overtime. For example, one “made only $1200 over three or four months,” while another “made only $196 while working 12- to 14-hour days, six to seven days a week for about two months.”
The district court denied the motion for summary judgment filed by Commerce Energy’s Just Energy affiliate, and the case went to trial. A jury found the company liable for minimum wage and overtime violations because the plaintiffs were not outside salespeople who were independent contractors, and the company appealed.
n an opinion by Judge Jane Stranch, the Sixth Circuit affirmed, but Trump judge Eric Murphy dissented. He claimed that facts were “largely undisputed,” and that whether Hurt and the other plaintiffs were independent contractors was a purely legal question that the court should have resolved in the corporation’s favor, particularly because of a Second Circuit decision involving the same parent corporation that he claimed was comparable.
Judge Stranch explained what was wrong with Murphy’s view. The caselaw is clear, Stranch explained, that whether workers are considered employees or independent contractors is a “mixed question of law and fact,” and that there were “”disputed issues of material fact” in this case that warranted submitting the issue to a jury. The jury properly found, Stranch continued, that Hurt and the others were not independent contractors in this case. Murphy’s reliance on the Second Circuit case, Stranch went on, “ignores the fact-intensive inquiry” required by the law, under which it was clear that the two cases were distinguishable. Based on the jury’s verdict and applicable case law, the majority concluded, it was clear that there was “no error” by the district court, and the decision should be and was affirmed.
If it had been up to Murphy, however, the workers who sold contracts for the Ohio energy company would have been deprived of minimum wage and overtime protection guaranteed by federal and state law.