Tuesday, April 17, 2018

6th Circuit: Church Restaurant Volunteers Are Not Covered By FLSA

In Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc., (6th Cir., April 16, 2018), the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals held that church volunteers who work at a for-profit restaurant operated by the church on its campus are not subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The volunteers supplement paid staff.  The court held that because the volunteers do not expect to receive compensation and are not economically dependent on the restaurant, they are not "employees" for purposes of the FLSA.

The more difficult question faced by the court was the concern expressed in Supreme Court cases that employers might coerce employees to make assertions that they did not expect compensation.  In this case, it was argued, the church's pastor engaged in coercion of church members to volunteer:
Reverend Angley recruited volunteers from the church pulpit on Sundays....  [B]efore his sermon, Angley would announce to the congregation that more volunteers were needed. Angley said the restaurant was “the Lord’s buffet,” and “[e]very time you say no, you are closing the door on God.” ...Ushers would pass around slips of paper, and parishioners interested in volunteering would write down their phone number and hand it in.
Judge Siler's opinion for the court rejected this argument, saying that "spiritual coercion cannot stand in for the economic coercion" that concerned the Supreme Court in prior precedent.

Judge Kethledge filed a concurring opinion exploring the "coercion" argument at greater length, saying in part:
The Department seeks to regulate spiritual conduct qua spiritual conduct, and to impose significant liability as a result. ... [T]he Department’s position here is that otherwise legal conduct—such as volunteering at a church restaurant—becomes illegal if the worker’s pastor spiritually pressures her to engage in it.... 
Nor is the Department even competent to make the spiritual judgment it purported to make here. “It is not within the judicial ken to question the centrality of particular beliefs or practices to a faith, or the validity of particular litigants’ interpretations of those creeds.”... That same idea of centrality perforce lies beneath any judgment about spiritual coercion. And bureaucrats are no better than judges at making that judgment. Hence it is beyond the ken of federal agencies, or the courts, to determine that congregants were spiritually coerced even though the congregants themselves say they were not.... 
What is perhaps most troubling about the Department’s position in this case, however, is the conceit of unlimited agency power that lies behind it. The power of a federal agency is no more than worldly. The Department should tend to what is Caesar’s, and leave the rest alone.
Cleveland.com reports on the decision.