In its November 2014 decision in Coffin v. Blessey Marine Services, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit abruptly ended a burst of litigation recently brought by towboat and barge-based tankermen in the Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama federal district courts. The plaintiffs in these cases sought to recover back overtime pay allegedly due them under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA or Act). The plaintiffs’ employers grounded their refusal to pay in the argument that towboat and barge-based tankermen are employed as “seamen” and are thus exempt from the FLSA’s overtime pay provisions. In one of the cases, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas disagreed, holding that the plaintiffs were “nonseamen” as a matter of law and were therefore entitled to back overtime pay.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling, holding that (1) the district court erroneously concluded that loading and unloading duties carried out by vessel-based tankermen were nonseaman duties as a matter of law and that (2) the FLSA seaman exemption applied because the vessel-based tankermen before the court performed seaman’s work when carrying out the loading and unloading duties at issue in the case.4 This Article will begin with an analysis of the seaman exemption’s history in Part II, followed by an analysis of its construction by the Fifth Circuit and its district courts in Part III. Part IV will provide an in-depth examination of the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in Coffin. Finally, Part V will conclude that the Fifth Circuit properly answered the questions presented in Coffin in a way that corrected the district court’s erroneous legal conclusions, avoided clashing with the FLSA’s underlying purposes, and forestalled the potential negative impact a contrary opinion would have inflicted on much of the Gulf Coast’s towboat and tank barge industry.