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Maritime Update: California Court Rules Their State Laws Apply for Crew Wage Claims in that State

Bill Schwartz - 

On December 7, 2020, in the case of Gulf Offshore Logistics v Superior Court of Ventura County, a California state court concluded California wage and hour laws applied to seamen and crew aboard a vessel servicing four oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel. They chose state law over federal law in a decision that seems to cause an inconsistent ruling for general maritime law purposes.

 The facts of the case are worth reviewing.

Gulf Offshore Logistics (GOL) owns and operates the ADELE ELISE, a vessel that provided services to oil platforms located off the California coast. The crew members from that vessel sued as class representatives of persons who were employed to work on the ADELE ELISE after July 14, 2012. They allege GOL failed to comply with numerous provisions of California’s wage and hour laws.

GOL is a limited liability company formed under Louisiana law. Every member of the company is a Louisiana resident. The company’s headquarters are in Louisiana and the ADELE ELISE is home ported in that state. Although the ADELE ELISE operated for a time in the Gulf of Mexico, it was repositioned to the Pacific Ocean in March 2011 and remained there until October 2017.

All of GOL’s administrative functions are done at their headquarters in Louisiana. Each former crew member traveled to Louisiana to apply in-person and to interview for that job. They also completed and acknowledged receipt of employment-related documents in Louisiana. Staff at GOL’s Louisiana office made arrangements to transport the crew members to and from the vessels to which they were assigned.

The crew worked on the ADELE ELISE from March 2011, when it was repositioned from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific coast. In October 2017, the vessel left California. Between 2011 and 2017, the ADELE ELISE was docked at Port Hueneme and from there would travel through the Santa Barbara Channel to deliver supplies and pick-up refuse from four oil platforms located in federal waters off the California coast. Between July 2012 and May 2015, the ADELE ELISE made approximately three trips each week to the oil platforms. After an oil spill occurred in May 2015, the average number of weekly trips declined.

Three crew members representing the class were used to show the pay for the crew. Crew member Norris was paid a flat-day rate for his services, ranging from $140 to $350 per day. Crew member Kwaw, a resident of Ohio, was employed as an able-bodied seaman (AB) aboard the ADELE ELISE for 580 days between July 2013 and August 2015 and paid a day-rate of between $265 to $350 per day. Crew member Musgrove, a resident of Mississippi, was employed as an engineer aboard the ADELE ELISE for 471 days between August 2013 and February 2016 and paid a day-rate between $310 to $750 per day. The employment of each of these three class representatives was terminated only because of a reduction in force. The crew members’ wage and hour claims were then made after their employment was terminated.

The crew members who were employed as AB’s typically worked “hitches” of 42-days on and 21-days off. Those employed as engineers worked hitches of 21-days on and 21-days off. Each crew member would travel by air from the airport closest to the crew member’s home to Los Angeles, where they were shuttled to the vessel in Port Hueneme. At the end of their hitch, the employees would be shuttled back to the Los Angeles airport and flown back to their home states. Administrative employees of petitioners, who were located in Louisiana, made travel arrangements for the crew members.

Once they arrived at the vessel, the crew members were not permitted to leave the vessel without permission for the remainder of their hitch. Occasionally, they were asked to disembark when the vessel was in port, to run errands or pick-up supplies. They worked an average of 12-hours per day each day of their hitch, whether the vessel was docked at Port Hueneme or underway to or from the platforms. The job duties of crew members who were employed as deckhands and AB’s included handling mooring lines, securing the vessel to docks and wharves, assisting in loading and unloading supplies, equipment and cargo, assisting with pumping water and fuel, cleaning the vessel and lifeboats, standing lookout, food preparation and cleaning the galley, repairing machinery and equipment, and performing other maintenance tasks such as painting, sanding, chipping and scraping the vessel. The engineers’ job duties included general engine maintenance, changing the engine oil, servicing the engine, pumping mud and chemicals off the vessel on the platforms, receiving fuel for the vessel and fueling the vessel on the platforms.

The port of Port Hueneme is located within the State of California, while the oil platforms are located outside the state’s boundaries. On its route to and from the platforms, the ADELE ELISE sailed both inside and outside of California’s state boundaries.

This case was sent back to the State court by the California Supreme Court, which directed it to reconsider the original decision in light of their two decisions of Ward v. United Airlines, Inc. and Oman v. Delta Air Lines, Inc.Ward and Oman were California Supreme Court cases which established that California’s wage and hour laws apply to workers who perform all or most of their work in California. In line with the ruling by their Supreme Court, this California court decided that California law governed the employment relationships at issue here because California served as the base for the crew members’ work operations, all or most of which were performed in California.

This court also looked to the prior California Supreme Court decision of Sullivan v. Oracle Corp. (2011) based upon which the court concluded California and not Louisiana law applied here because the crew members’ work was performed in California. They found that Louisiana law did not apply for the same reason: the crew members did not perform work in Louisiana.

Lastly, the court addressed whether “preemption” applied here. This is when federal law takes precedent over state law. Here, they noted preemption may occur in three situations:

(1) where the federal law expressly so states,

(2) where the federal law is so comprehensive that it leaves ‘“no room” for supplementary state regulation, or

(3) where the federal and state laws ‘actually conflict’

But, in this case, they found “no evidence that Congress intended the Fair Labor Standards Act’s seamen exemption to preempt state law.” (The federal law that wage and hour laws do not apply to seaman).

They also rejected the contention by GOL that “general maritime law” would preempt California law. This was the proposition that general maritime law should be applied consistently in each state and this ruling would be inconsistent.

Of interest, the same The California Supreme Court had explained as follows in one of its prior decisions of Tidewater Marine Western, Inc. v. Bradshaw (1996): “California employment laws implicitly extend to employment occurring within California’s state law boundaries, including all of the Santa Barbara Channel,” unless “the operation of federal law were at issue, as for example if federal law conflicted with state law.”

Be aware:  this case appears to be at odds with the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Parker Drilling Mgmnt. Co. v. Newton, decided in 2019. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) to mean that state law only applies if federal law does not address the relevant issue. While the court in this case concluded OCSLA does not apply in this case, at the same time the court noted the area in the channel where the seamen worked is considered federal waters outside the boundaries of the state of California. Therefore, it would seem that the Fair Labor Standards Act would apply as federal law to preclude the application of California state wage and hour laws.

We think this will be appealed not only to the California Supreme Court but might make it to the U.S. Supreme Court. It seems here that state law is given preference, which would allow for inconsistent judgments for seaman in different states.


If you have any questions regarding this maritime matter, please contact Bill Schwartz at (504) 569-2900 or wschwartz@bhbmlaw.com.


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