Fire Alarm Inspectors Lose FLSA Claim For Briefcase Carrying

A group of six civilians employed by the City of New York as fire alarm inspectors filed a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) lawsuit against the City alleging that they performed a variety of off-the-clock work without compensation. Friday mornings, the inspectors picked up the files necessary to perform inspections for the following week. The inspectors took the files home in briefcases, maintained them in a safe location in their homes over the weekend, and brought them back to work the following Monday morning in order to start their first inspection promptly at the beginning of the workday.

The inspectors sought compensation for the time they spent commuting to and from work with the files needed for the forthcoming inspections. A federal trial court rejected the inspectors’ claims.

The Court found that “carrying the briefcases did not change the distance, method, duration or manner of the commute in any way after the inspectors completed their walk to a public transportation station or their own vehicle. Nor do any of the inspectors contend that they were engaged in any other work-related task during their commutes. Even accepting as true that bringing files to the site inspections was necessary for the inspectors to perform their jobs, that fact without more does not make commuting ‘integral and indispensable’ to the principal activity of the inspections. Like walking from the factory gate to a work station or waiting to don protective gear, carrying a briefcase is the sort of pre-shift activity that the Portal-to-Portal Act excludes from the FLSA.”

With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the Court analogized its decision to that of a federal appeals court that had held that the time spent by canine officers commuting with police dogs was not compensable. The Court observed that “unlike a dog that might interrupt a commute with unanticipated behavior or bodily needs, a briefcase containing various files does not ordinarily demand attention from its human carrier. Just as the Second Circuit concluded that the mere presence of a dog with the officer did not transform the otherwise non-compensable commute into compensable work, so this Court concludes that the mere presence of a briefcase during the plaintiffs’ commutes does not make that time compensable.”

The Court refused to dismiss the inspectors’ lawsuit claiming that they were required to complete paperwork while off duty. The Court found the significant issue – the knowledge of the City that the work was being performed off duty – warranted a trial in the matter.

Singh v. City of New York, 2005 WL 3215140 (S.D.N.Y. 2005).

This article appears in the January 2006 issue