Mclaughlin v. Boston Harbor Cruise Lines

Decision Date17 August 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-1519.,04-1519.
Citation419 F.3d 47
PartiesMegan McLAUGHLIN, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. BOSTON HARBOR CRUISE LINES, INC.; Modern Continental Construction Co., Inc., Defendants, Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Vincent P. Dunn, with whom Elizabeth B. Crouch and Dunn and Dunn were on brief, for appellant.

Richard D. Wayne, with whom Brien E. Lewis and Hinckley, Allen & Snyder LLP were on brief, for appellees.

Carol B. Feinberg, with whom Howard M. Radzely, Solicitor, Steven J. Mandel, Associate Solicitor, and Paul L. Frieden, Counsel for Appellate Litigation, were on brief, for U.S. Department of Labor, amicus curiae.

Stephen E. Bers, with whom Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, LLP was on brief, for National Association of Passenger Vessel Owners, Inc., amicus curiae.

Before LYNCH, LIPEZ, and HOWARD, Circuit Judges.

LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

The ultimate issue in this case revolves around the exemption for "any employee employed as a seaman" from the overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 ("FLSA"). 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(6). The plaintiff, Megan McLaughlin, worked on a Boston-based commuter ferry owned and operated by her employer, Boston Harbor Cruise Lines, Inc ("Boston Harbor").1 She sued, alleging that Boston Harbor was not paying her overtime pay that was due to her under the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 207, as well as similar Massachusetts law.

In response, Boston Harbor filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), noting that any employee employed as a "seaman" was exempt from the overtime requirements under the FLSA, and alleging that, based on McLaughlin's complaint, she could prove no set of facts that would take her outside of this exemption. The district court agreed with Boston Harbor and dismissed the case. Because the applicability of the "seaman" exemption to an individual like McLaughlin is a fact-dependent issue that is best decided after a full factual record has been compiled, it was error to dismiss this case at the 12(b)(6) stage. We reverse, vacate the dismissal, and remand for further proceedings.

I. Complaint and Procedural History

Since this case was decided on a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, and no discovery has occurred, we recite the allegations as they appear in McLaughlin's complaint.

In her complaint filed May 14, 2003,2 McLaughlin alleges that she was employed by Boston Harbor from June 1997 through December 2002, working on one of its commuter boats for approximately 80 hours per week in the summer and approximately 60 hours per week in the winter. She was paid an hourly wage of between $8 per hour and $11.50 per hour and, she alleges, was not paid overtime for her hours in excess of 40 per week.

McLaughlin's allegations about the nature of her employment on the commuter ferry are quite sparse, occupying only a few sentences. She alleges that her "duties" throughout her employment were those of a "deckhand." "For example, she took passenger's tickets, loaded and unloaded passengers, collected fares, stood by at the dock to ensure safe exiting of passengers and swept the boat and dock areas." She further alleges that "[f]or more than 90% of her average work day, she engaged in activities not related to the navigation" of the commuter ferry. She added that she was not "actively engaged in the operation or navigation of the commuter vessels upon which she worked" and that "[s]he did not operate the vessels, chart courses, monitor radar or perform any other duties related to the navigation of the subject commuter vessels."

After Boston Harbor filed its motion to dismiss and accompanying memorandum of law, the district court scheduled a hearing for March 11, 2004. However, no such hearing was ever held; on the day that was scheduled for the hearing, the district court granted Boston Harbor's motion to dismiss "substantially for the reasons advanced in the defendants' papers." No written opinion was issued.

McLaughlin filed a timely appeal. On appeal, two entities, the Secretary of Labor and the National Association of Passenger Vessel Owners, Inc. (an industry trade association), have filed amicus briefs with us. The district court did not have the benefit of these amici.

Arguments on Appeal

On appeal, McLaughlin relies heavily on her view of the interpretative regulations issued by the Department of Labor, see 29 C.F.R. pt. 783. McLaughlin points out that the regulations state that it is the "character of the work" performed, and not "what it is called or the place where it is performed," that determines whether someone is "employed as a seaman" — thus, the fact that she works on a boat is not determinative. 29 C.F.R. § 783.33. Further, McLaughlin emphasizes the Labor Department's formulation that an employee will be regarded as a "seaman" for purposes of the exemption only if she performs "service which is rendered primarily as an aid in the operation of such vessel as a means of transportation, provided [s]he performs no substantial work of a different character." 29 C.F.R. § 783.31. McLaughlin argues that because most of her work involved taking tickets, loading and unloading passengers, and cleaning the boat, she does not meet this test. Finally, McLaughlin states that the legislative history of the FLSA makes it clear that the exemption should be interpreted narrowly and differently from other acts like the Jones Act, see 46 U.S.C.App. § 688(a), so as not to exclude too many workers from FLSA protections. Although McLaughlin argues as though she is entitled to judgment in her favor, she also argues that dismissal was wrong because she is entitled to discover additional facts.

The Secretary of Labor, in her amicus brief in support of McLaughlin, argues essentially that McLaughlin's proposed interpretation and application of the Department of Labor regulations dealing with the "seaman" exemption is correct, reflects the Secretary's own "longstanding interpretation" of these regulations, and should be adopted by the court.

Boston Harbor also relies heavily on the Department of Labor regulations, but it interprets them differently. In its view, the regulations classify workers into three groups: (1) "water transportation workers, e.g. members of the crew," (2) employees, such as concessionaires, who do not report to the master of the ship, and (3) "industrial employees." See 29 C.F.R. §§ 783.32, 783.33, 783.34. Boston Harbor believes that the first group falls under the exemption, while the second and third do not. It views all of McLaughlin's duties as falling into the first group. The Secretary's contrary interpretation of the regulations articulated in her amicus brief, Boston Harbor argues, is entitled to no deference because it is inconsistent with the Secretary's past interpretations and has been asserted for the first time in a litigation context. Boston Harbor also argues that the ordinary meaning of the term "seaman" would include any "water transportation workers," including someone like McLaughlin, and that the legislative history makes it clear that Congress intended to give the term its ordinary meaning. Finally, Boston Harbor argues that the definition of the term "seaman" within the FLSA should not be overly narrow, and should generally match the definition given in other statutes, so that "seamen" receive both the special employment benefits and special burdens associated with their profession. Cf. Harkins v. Riverboat Servs., Inc., 385 F.3d 1099, 1103 (7th Cir.2004) (applying rebuttable presumption that someone classified as "seaman" for purposes of other employment statutes should be recognized as a "seaman" under FLSA as well).

In its amicus brief in support of Boston Harbor, the National Association of Passenger Vessel Owners, Inc. attacks some of the Department of Labor's regulations themselves (most notably the 20 percent rule in 29 C.F.R. § 783.37), as well as the interpretation of those regulations proposed in the Secretary's amicus brief. It asserts that the analysis called for by the regulations, especially as interpreted by the Secretary, is unworkable in light of ordinary industry practices because it requires fine-grained assessments of the various tasks an employee performs as well as how much time she devotes to each of her tasks. See, e.g., Harkins, 385 F.3d at 1104. The Association concedes that the regulations themselves (as opposed to the Secretary's interpretation of them in the amicus brief) deserve some deference, but it nonetheless argues in favor of affirmance.


We review a motion to dismiss on 12(b)(6) grounds de novo. See, e.g., Zimmerman v. Cambridge Credit Counseling Corp., 409 F.3d 473, 475 (1st Cir.2005). The standard for granting a motion to dismiss is an exacting one: "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of [her] claim which would entitle [her] to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957). As well, we must assume that all well-pleaded allegations in McLaughlin's complaint are true, and we must indulge all reasonable inferences from these allegations in her favor. See, e.g., Centro Medico del Turabo, Inc. v. Feliciano de Melecio, 406 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir.2005).

FLSA Claim

Because the FLSA itself contains no definition of a "seaman," the Department of Labor regulations play a role. At the outset, we distinguish the regulations themselves from the Secretary's interpretation of those regulations in the amicus brief filed with this case.

There is no dispute in this case about the level of deference owed to the regulations themselves. All parties agree that some deference is owed the regulations. The Secretary of Labor herself calls for application of deference under Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 65 S.Ct. 161, 89 L.Ed. 124 (1944), and no more deference than...

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