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Ohio District Court Delivers Win For Pizza Drivers

Following the guidance set forth in the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)’s Field Operations Handbook, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recently ruled in favor of pizza delivery drivers and in the process confirmed the standard for reimbursement of vehicle expenses under the FLSA. 

In Hatmaker, et al., v. PJ Ohio, LLC, et al., the court granted summary judgment in favor of pizza delivery drivers who incurred costs to “purchase, maintain and operate” their vehicles, and alleged that because they were not paid “their actual expenses or the IRS standard business mileage rate,” they were effectively paid less than minimum wage. According to the decision, the defendant employer operated 73 Papa John’s locations, and paid the plaintiff delivery drivers at or near the minimum wage. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the court ruled in favor of the delivery driver employees. 

The DOL’s anti-kickback regulation prohibits arrangements that “shift part of the Employer’s business expense to the employees . . . to the extent that it reduce[s] an employee’s wage below the statutory minimum.” For example, as the DOL has explained, if the employer requires that an employee provide his or her own equipment or tools, the FLSA is violated “in any workweek when the cost of such tools purchased by the employee cuts into the minimum or overtime wages required to be paid.” As the court explained, “[i]n the pizza delivery context, the cost associated with delivering food for an employer is a ‘kickback’ to the employer that must be fully reimbursed, lest a minimum wage violation be triggered.”

The DOL recognizes that tracking delivery employee expenses is a potentially cumbersome task. Enter the Field Operations Handbook (FOH), which affords employers the option of either tracking and reimbursing delivery drivers for their actual delivery expenses (such as “gasoline, oil and other fluids, vehicle parts, auto repair and maintenance, registration costs, licensing and taxes”) or simply reimbursing delivery drivers at the IRS standard business mileage rate. 

The defendant employer in this case neither tracked and reimbursed drivers’ actual expenses nor reimbursed drivers at the IRS standard rate. Thus, the plaintiff delivery drivers argued that they received less than the FLSA minimum wage. The employer argued that the FOH is not entitled to any deference and that it is based on outdated IRS publications. Moreover, the employer asserted that the IRS daily rate does not pertain to reimbursements under the FLSA.

The court found that while the FOH was not entitled to Chevron deference, Skidmore deference was appropriate, as the FOH is “one of the ‘interpretations, opinions and explanatory Guidelines’ of the Department of Labor, to which a court ‘may properly resort for guidance’…”

Based on the DOL’s guidance, the court explained that employers may not “guess” or “approximate” employee expenses, because some employees would inevitably receive less than the minimum wage. Echoing the FOH, the court held that the “the proper measure of minimum wage compliance for pizza delivery drivers is to either (1) track and pay delivery drivers’ actual expenses or (2) pay the mileage reimbursement rate set by the Internal Revenue Service.” 

So, the court concluded, employers may defeat summary judgment by showing “that they tracked and paid actual expenses and paid an amount equal to the minimum hourly wage rate plus actual expenses.”

The decision in Hatmaker provides a roadmap for employers of delivery drivers engaged in similar wage and hour litigation, which have become prevalent across the country. Employers of food delivery drivers or other employees who are required to provide their own tools or equipment may wish to review their practices and policies to ensure compliance with the FLSA.

© 2020 BARNES & THORNBURG LLPNational Law Review, Volume IX, Number 312


About this Author

Peter J. Wozniak Barnes Thornburg Chicago  Labor Employment

Pete Wozniak is a vigorous advocate who strives to help his clients navigate issues that can be fraught with challenges as painlessly and efficiently as possible. He is a candid and personable counselor, offering his clients direct advice by leveraging his deep experience performing a broad range of outcome critical functions for complex labor and employment matters.

Pete represents clients across a number of industries, including transportation and logistics, restaurants, retail, manufacturing, and temporary staffing. Handling a number of high profile matters, he identifies the...

Mark Wallin, Attorney, BT, Chicago, Labor Employment
Of Counsel

In order to provide the best counsel, Mark Wallin believes it is his role to understand his clients’ business needs so he can help them determine what resolution will provide the most benefit. His keen ability to understand his clients’ practical concerns allows him to advise on the best path to successfully resolve issues – whether through traditional litigation or negotiated resolution.

In the course of his practice, Mark has focused on providing the highest-level of service to his clients and building long-term relationships. Specifically, he defends employers in a wide range of employment matters including wage and hour class and collective actions, as well as complex, multi-plaintiff and single plaintiff employment discrimination claims brought not only by private plaintiffs but also initiated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Mark has successfully represented companies of virtually all sizes, litigating matters across multiple areas of the law, from the pleading stage through appeal. He has also represented clients in arbitrations and before administrative bodies.

Mark vigilantly stays abreast of cases, laws, and trends that may impact his clients coming out of the courts, Congress and the state legislature, as well as the U.S. Department of Labor, the EEOC, and state regulatory agencies. He strives to keep a watchful eye on how labor and employment related laws are evolving so as to proactively advise clients.

In addition to his regular legal practice, Mark has undertaken several pro bono cases including trying criminal jury trials in state and federal court, and representing indigent plaintiffs in civil rights matters as part of the federal Trial Bar.

Mark began honing his litigation skill during law school when he interned at the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Illinois, where he handled both civil and criminal issues. He also interned for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which gave him a unique vantage of seeing the issues from the court’s perspective.