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Class Action Defense And Employment Law Issues–Loving v. Johnson: Prison Inmates Are Not Employees Under Federal FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) For Working At Prison Fifth Circuit Holds

In Case of First Impression for Federal Courts in Fifth Circuit, Court Joins Sister Circuits in Holding that Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) Does not Cover Prisoners Working at Prison

On July 7, 2006, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals considered the appeal of a prison inmate from a federal district court judgment dismissing his action as frivolous. Loving v. Johnson, ___ F.3d ___, 2006 WL 1868320 (5th Cir. 2006). The prisoner filed suit claiming that under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq. (FLSA), he was entitled to receive minimum wage for working in the prison laundry. The federal appeals court noted that “until today, we have not expressly stated whether there is any FLSA employment relationship between the prison and its inmates working in and for the prison.” Slip Opn., at 2. The Circuit Court adopted the reasoning of a recent opinion out of the Seventh Circuit and quickly disposed of Loving’s claim, holding that “a prisoner doing work in or for the prison is not an ’employee’ under the FLSA,” id., at 3:

People are not imprisoned for the purpose of enabling them to earn a living. The prison pays for their keep. If it puts them to work, it is to offset some of the cost of keeping them, or to keep them out of mischief, or to ease their transition to the world outside, or to equip them with skills and habits that will make them less likely to return to crime outside. None of these goals is compatible with federal regulation of their wages and hours. The reason the FLSA contains no express exception for prisoners is probably that the idea was too outlandish to occur to anyone when the legislation was under consideration by Congress.

Slip Opn., at 3 (quoting Bennett v. Frank, 395 F.3d 409, 409-10 (7th Cir. 2005) (additional citations omitted).

NOTE: As Loving notes, prisoners have not uniformly lost these types of cases. The Fifth Circuit has held, for example, that prisoners who work outside the prison for private firms are “employees” within the meaning of FLSA (at least if they are not sentenced to hard labor), Watson v. Graves, 909 F.2d 1549, 1556 (5th Cir. 1990), but that prisoners who work inside the prison for private firms are not be covered by FLSA, Alexander v. Sara, Inc., 721 F.2d 149, 150 (5th Cir. 1983). The Fifth Circuit has also held “that a jailer was not the FLSA employer of an inmate working in a work-release program for a private employer outside the jail,” Loving, at 2 (citing Reimonenq v. Foti, 72 F.3d 472, 475-76 (5th Cir. 1996).

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