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Armas v. St. Augustine Old Roman Catholic Church

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

July 8, 2019

ARTEMIO ARMAS and EMA ARMAS, and all others similarly situated under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), Plaintiffs,
v.
ST. AUGUSTINE OLD ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SIDNEY A. FITZWATER SENIOR JUDGE.

         In this collective action, plaintiffs Artemio Armas (“Artemio”) and Ema Armas (“Ema”) sue defendants St. Augustine Catholic Church and School (“St. Augustine”), John Parnell (“Parnell”), and St. Augustine Old Roman Catholic Church, a Parish of the Old Roman Catholic Church in North America (“Old Roman”), under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., and under Texas law. In separate motions, Old Roman, and Parnell and St. Augustine, move for summary judgment. Although the motions present several close questions, for the reasons that follow, the court grants in part and denies in part the motion filed by Parnell and St. Augustine, and it grants the motion filed by Old Roman and dismisses with prejudice plaintiffs' federal-law claims against Old Roman and dismisses without prejudice plaintiffs' state-law claims against Old Roman by judgment filed today.

         St. Augustine is a small church located on a residential lot in Fort Worth, Texas, where Parnell has served as pastor since 1991.[1] St. Augustine's facilities include a chapel, church office, Parnell's office, storage space/apartment, and a yard. Although the parishioners of St. Augustine share many doctrinal beliefs with the Roman Catholic Church, defendants maintain that St. Augustine operates autonomously and independently from the Roman Catholic Church, sustaining its operations by relying on Sunday mass collections and volunteer work.

         In addition to conducting weekly masses in English and Spanish, St. Augustine provides a place for the congregation to celebrate weddings and quinceañeras and to hold funeral services. The church also operates a home-school program for high school students that offers the equivalent of a high school diploma. According to plaintiffs, beginning in 2008, Parnell manufactured cigars at St. Augustine using tobacco imported from the Dominican Republic.

         In 2003 Artemio and his wife Ema met Parnell and became active members of St. Augustine. Defendants maintain that Artemio and Ema volunteered at the church on “parish work days, ” during which church members volunteered to perform tasks such as vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms, cleaning the yard, and emptying the trash.[2]

         Artemio and Ema contend that they provided general maintenance, janitorial, and housekeeping services at St. Augustine from 2008 through August 31, 2016, and that in September 2016 Artemio assisted Parnell and St. Augustine in transporting goods from California to Texas. Prior to January 2, 2016 Parnell's then-wife Caroline Parnell allegedly paid Artemio and Ema for their work at St. Augustine. According to Artemio and Ema, however, beginning on January 2, 2016, and continuing through August 31, 2016, they worked an average of 35 hours per week but were not paid for their work, despite Parnell's having informed Artemio that he would be paid $10.00 per hour and that Ema would be paid $9.00 per hour for their work in 2016.

         In September 2016 Artemio asked Parnell to be paid for the work that he and Ema had performed at St. Augustine that year. According to plaintiffs, Parnell responded to this request by threatening and physically assaulting Artemio.

         Artemio and Ema then filed this lawsuit against St. Augustine, Parnell, and Old Roman. In their second amended complaint, they sue Parnell, St. Augustine, and Old Roman under the FLSA for unpaid minimum wages and retaliation, and under Texas law on claims for breach of contract, assault, quantum meruit, and promissory estoppel. Parnell and St. Augustine, and Old Roman, separately move for summary judgment. Plaintiffs oppose both motions. The court has heard oral argument.[3]

         II

         When a party moves for summary judgment on claims on which the opposing parties will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party can meet its summary judgment obligation by pointing the court to the absence of admissible evidence to support the nonmovants' claims. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). Once the moving party does so, the nonmovants must go beyond their pleadings and designate specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial. See Id. at 324; Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (per curiam). An issue is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmovants' favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The nonmovants' failure to produce proof as to any essential element of a claim renders all other facts immaterial. See TruGreen Landcare, L.L.C. v. Scott, 512 F.Supp.2d 613, 623 (N.D. Tex. 2007) (Fitzwater, J.). Summary judgment is mandatory if the nonmovants fail to meet this burden. Little, 37 F.3d at 1076.

         III

         Parnell and St. Augustine move for summary judgment on plaintiffs' FLSA minimum wage claim on the ground that neither Artemio nor Ema was a covered employee under the FLSA.

         A

         The FLSA guarantees certain minimum wages for employees “engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce” or “employed in an enterprise engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce.” 29 U.S.C. § 206(a).[4] To establish FLSA coverage, plaintiffs must show that they (1) personally engaged in commerce or the production of goods for commerce (individual coverage) or (2) were employed by an enterprise engaged in such activity (enterprise coverage). See Martin v. Bedell, 955 F.2d 1029, 1032 (5th Cir. 1992) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1)). “Either individual or enterprise coverage is enough to invoke FLSA protection.” Id.

         B

         The court considers first whether plaintiffs have presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that they are covered under the FLSA based on individual coverage.

         1.

         Because the FLSA does not define what it means for an employee to be “engaged in interstate commerce, ” the Fifth Circuit has adopted a “practical test, ” which asks “whether the work is so directly and vitally related to the functioning of an instrumentality or facility of interstate commerce as to be, in practical effect, a part of it, rather than isolated local activity.” Sobrinio v. Med. Ctr. Visitor's Lodge, Inc., 474 F.3d 828, 829 (5th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (quoting Mitchell v. H.B. Zachry Co., 362 U.S. 310, 324 (1960)). “[A]ny regular contact with commerce, no matter how small, will result in coverage.” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Marshall v. Victoria Transp. Co., 603 F.2d 1122, 1124 (5th Cir. 1979)). The employee's work, however, must be “entwined with the continuous stream of interstate commerce.” Marshall, 603 F.2d at 1125 (citation omitted). “It is therefore not sufficient, for purposes of the ‘engaged in commerce' clause of the individual coverage provision, that an employee's work merely ‘affects' interstate commerce in some way.” Mendoza v. Detail Sols., LLC, 911 F.Supp.2d 433, 439 (N.D. Tex. 2012) (Fish, J.) (citing Wirtz v. Wohl Shoe Co., 382 F.2d 848, 850 (5th Cir. 1967)).

         Parnell and St. Augustine contend that plaintiffs were not engaged in interstate commerce when they allegedly provided handyman and janitorial services at St. Augustine, and, instead, that their work was “isolated local activity.” Ds. Br. 8. Plaintiffs respond that much of their work was custodial in nature; Parnell manufactured cigars on the property owned and operated by St. Augustine using tobacco imported from the Dominican Republic; Artemio “witnessed bishops with briefcases full of cigars at St. Augustine, ” Ps. Br. 16; Parnell told Artemio that he “earned a lot of money selling [the cigars], ” id. at 17 (alteration in original); and Artemio testified that a number of the bishops involved with St. Augustine were from locations outside the state of Texas.

         Based on plaintiffs' summary judgment evidence, a reasonable jury could not find that the work Artemio and Ema performed at St. Augustine was so “directly and vitally related to the functioning of an instrumentality or facility of interstate commerce as to be, in practical effect, a part of it, rather than isolated local activity.” Sobrinio, 474 F.3d at 829. At most, plaintiffs have shown that Parnell rolled cigars on church property using tobacco from the Dominican Republic. But they have not adduced sufficient summary judgment evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Parnell ever sold the cigars he rolled or that St. Augustine profited in any way from Parnell's alleged cigar-rolling operation. In other words, plaintiffs have failed to create a fact issue on whether the cigars allegedly manufactured at St. Augustine ever entered the stream of commerce. Plaintiffs' bare allegation that Parnell manufactured and sold cigars on church property is insufficient, without more, to establish that plaintiffs were “engaged in commerce, ” as is required to establish individual coverage. In fact, at oral argument, plaintiffs' counsel acknowledged that plaintiffs' argument that they could establish individual FLSA coverage based on Parnell's alleged cigar manufacturing was “weak.”

         2.

         Plaintiffs' allegation that, in September 2016, Artemio drove a truck to California to transport goods back to Texas is likewise insufficient to enable a reasonable jury to find that plaintiffs were “engaged in commerce.” “A key factor in determining if a plaintiff engaged in commerce for purposes of individual coverage under the FLSA is whether such activities were a ‘regular and recurrent' part of the plaintiff's employment duties.” Tran v. Thai, 2010 WL 5232944, at *3 (S.D. Tex. Dec. 16, 2010) (citing 29 C.F.R. § 776.10(b)); see also Sobrinio, 474 F.3d at 829 (“[A]ny regular contact with commerce, no matter how small, will result in coverage, ” (alteration in original) (emphasis added) (quoting Marhall, 63 F.2d at 1124)). In other words,

for an employee to be “engaged in commerce” under the FLSA, he must be “directly participating in the actual movement of persons or things in interstate commerce by (i) working for an instrumentality of interstate commerce, e.g., transportation or communication industry employees, or (ii) by regularly using the instrumentalities of interstate commerce in his work, e.g., regular and recurrent use of interstate telephone, telegraph, mails, or travel.”

Tran, 2010 WL 5232944, at *3 (emphasis added) (quoting Thorne v. All Restoration Servs., Inc., 448 F.3d 1264, 1266 (11th Cir. 2006)). Assuming arguendo that Artemio actually assisted Parnell in transporting goods from California to Texas in September 2016, [5] plaintiffs have adduced no evidence that would enable a reasonable jury to find that this was anything more than an isolated, one-time occurrence. This activity, even if it occurred, is insufficient to permit a reasonable jury to find that plaintiffs were “engaged in commerce.”

         3.

         Finally, the court considers whether plaintiffs have introduced sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find individual coverage based on the domestic services that plaintiffs allegedly performed for Parnell and St. Augustine.

         Under the FLSA, “the employment of persons in domestic service in households affects commerce.” 29 U.S.C. § 202(a). “The term domestic service employment means services of a household nature performed by an employee in or about a private home (permanent or temporary)” and includes “services performed by employees such as . . . maids, housekeepers, . . . janitors, . . . caretakers, handymen, [and] gardeners.” 29 C.F.R. § 552.3.

         Defendants do not appear to dispute that the services Artemio and Ema provided were of a “household nature.” Instead, they maintain that plaintiffs cannot establish individual coverage because the domestic services they provided were not performed in a private home. In response, plaintiffs point to evidence that one of the buildings on the church property, Building B, was Parnell's residence and personal office during 2016, and they posit that this evidence supports a finding that plaintiffs' domestic service tasks, “such as cleaning the residence and doing Parnell's laundry, ” were performed at a private residence and fall within the domestic service individual coverage arm of the FLSA. Ps. Br. 19.

         Assuming arguendo that Building B was Parnell's personal residence, as plaintiffs contend, plaintiffs have failed to establish individual coverage because they fail to cite any evidence that would enable a reasonable jury to find that they performed domestic services in Parnell's personal residence as opposed to the other buildings and structures located on the church property. The mere fact that Parnell maintained a private residence on the church property does not convert plaintiffs' work in the public areas of the church property into “domestic service in [a] household[ ].” 29 U.S.C. § 202(a). Without evidence that ...


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