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Chaplin v. SSA Cooper, LLC

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

June 16, 2017

JUSTIN CHAPLIN, on behalf of himself and others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
SSA COOPER, LLC, Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on a motion for summary judgment filed by defendant SSA Cooper, LLC (“SSA Cooper”). For the reasons set forth below, the court denies SSA Cooper's motion in full, as it relates to summary judgment on the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the South Carolina Payment of Wages Act (“SCPWA”) claims.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Justin Chaplin (“Chaplin”) was formerly employed as a “stevedore”[1] by SSA Cooper, a stevedoring company responsible for the loading and unloading of cargo ships at the Port of Charleston. At the Port of Charleston, the SSA Cooper stevedores work alongside International Longshoremen's Association (“ILA”) union members who are organized in “gangs.” Each stevedore is responsible for overseeing the work of a loading gang of fifteen ILA workers, a lashing gang of seven ILA workers, or a gang of seven ILA truck drivers. SSA Cooper is bound by the grievance procedure for disciplining union members set forth in the ILA's collective bargaining agreement.

         On March 5, 2015, Chaplin filed the present action against SSA Cooper on behalf of himself and “all other similarly situated individuals” (“plaintiffs”) for overtime compensation and unpaid wages.[2] Plaintiffs allege that SSA Cooper violated the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201, et seq. by failing to pay overtime compensation as required under the statute, as well as under the SCPWA, SC Code Ann. §§ 41-10-10, et seq. by failing to pay “non-discretionary bonuses” as required by SSA Cooper's employment contracts and employee compensation plan.

         On October 27, 2016, SSA Cooper filed a motion for summary judgment on all of plaintiffs' claims, to which plaintiffs filed a response on December 30, 2016. SSA Cooper filed a reply on January 13, 2017. The court held a hearing on February 1, 2017. The motion has been fully briefed and is now ripe for the court's review.

         II. STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that the district court enter judgment against a party who, ‘after adequate time for discovery . . . fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.'” Stone v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 105 F.3d 188, 190 (4th Cir. 1997) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). Any reasonable inferences are to be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. See Webster v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 685 F.3d 411, 421 (4th Cir. 2012). However, to defeat summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify an error of law or a genuine issue of disputed material fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986); see also Bouchat v. Balt. Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003).

         Although the court must draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, the nonmoving party must rely on more than conclusory allegations, mere speculation, the building of one inference upon another, or the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252; Stone, 105 F.3d at 191. Rather, “a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment . . . must ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Bouchat, 346 F.3d at 522 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) (2002) (amended 2010)). If the adverse party fails to provide evidence establishing that the factfinder could reasonably decide in his favor, then summary judgment shall be entered “regardless of ‘[a]ny proof or evidentiary requirements imposed by the substantive law.'” Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).


         SSA Cooper moves for summary judgment on all of plaintiffs' claims and requests that the court dismiss the entirety of the lawsuit. Def.'s Mot. 30. SSA Cooper moves for summary judgment on the FLSA claim, arguing that plaintiffs were properly classified as executive employees and were therefore exempt from the overtime pay requirements of the FLSA. Id. at 2. It also moves for summary judgment on the SCPWA claim, arguing that plaintiffs' deposition testimony “confirms this claim lacks a factual basis and has been abandoned.” Id. The court addresses each argument in turn.

         A. Exempt Employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act

         SSA Cooper argues that plaintiffs are properly classified as executive employees, and therefore, are exempt from the protections of the FLSA. The court disagrees.

         The FLSA is a statute that is “remedial and humanitarian in purpose, ” and reflects Congress's intent to protect broadly the “rights of those who toil.” Tennessee Coal, Iron & R.R. v. Muscoda Local No. 123, 321 U.S. 590 (1944). Consistent with this remedial purpose, the statute is to be construed liberally keeping in mind that “broad coverage is essential” to accomplish the statute's goals. Tony & Susan Alamo Found. v. Sec'y of Labor, 471 U.S. 290, 296 (1985); see Purdham v. Fairfax Cty. Sch. Bd., 637 F.3d 421, 427 (4th Cir. 2011) (“[T]he Supreme Court has cautioned that the FLSA ‘must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.'” (internal citation omitted)). The FLSA mandates a minimum wage for employees covered by the statute, and requires employers to pay covered employees time-and-a-half for each hour worked in excess of forty hours during any given workweek. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1).

         The FLSA carves out an exemption from these requirements for “[a]ny employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity, ” (hereafter referred to as the “executive employee exemption”). 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). Due to the remedial nature of the FLSA, this executive employee exemption is to be narrowly construed. See Arnold v. Ben Kanowsky, Inc., 361 U.S. 388, 392 (1960) (“We have held that these exemptions are to be narrowly construed against the employers seeking to assert them and their application limited to those establishments plainly and unmistakably within their terms and spirit.”). The employer has the burden to establish by clear and convincing evidence that an employee qualifies for the executive exemption. Shockley v. City of Newport News, 997 F.2d 18, 21 (4th Cir. 1993).

         Courts have utilized a Department of Labor (“DOL”) regulation to determine whether the executive employee exemption is applicable to a particular employee. See, e.g., Madden v. Lumber One Home Ctr., Inc., 745 F.3d 899, 903 (8th Cir. 2014). The relevant DOL regulation defines an “executive” employee as any employee:

(1) Compensated on a salary basis at a rate of not less than $455 per week . . . exclusive of board, lodging ...

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