Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation

PETITIONER: Clifton Sandifer, et al.
RESPONDENT: United States Steel Corporation
LOCATION: United States Steel Corporation

DOCKET NO.: 12-417
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)

CITATION: 571 US (2014)
GRANTED: Feb 19, 2013
ARGUED: Nov 04, 2013
DECIDED: Jan 27, 2014

Anthony A. Yang - Assistant to the Solicitor General , Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae supporting the respondent
Eric Schnapper - for the petitioners
Lawrence C. DiNardo - for the respondent

Facts of the case

Workers at the United Steel Corporation brought a class action suit against the company arguing that the Fair Labor Standards Act required the company to compensate them for time spent changing into and out of work clothes and the transit time from the locker room to their work stations. The Act states that an employer does not need to compensate employees for time spent "changing clothes." United States Steel Corporation moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion as it relates to compensation for changing clothes but not in relation to compensation for transit time.

The company appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that Act did not require the company to compensate the employees for either the time spent changing or the time spent in transit between the locker room and the work stations.


Does changing into required safety gear constitute "changing clothes" under the Fair Labor Standards Act?

Media for Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 04, 2013 in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 27, 2014 in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation

Justice Scalia has the opinion of the Court in two cases this morning.

The first of this is Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation.

That is here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

It is about what is called in the -- in the literature on this subject “donning and doffing”, two good old Anglo-Saxon words that are not much used anymore, although we still sing, “Don We Now Our Gay Apparel” at Christmas and I suppose a well-bred gentleman still doffs his hat to a lady.

A group of steel workers sued their employer, United States Steel Corporation under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

The workers sought back pay for times spent donning and doffing pieces of protective gear.

Because of the number of workers involved, possibly 800 or more, the aggregate amounts of time and money at issue are substantial.

U.S. Steel contends that its collective bargaining agreement with the worker's union relieves it of the obligation to pay for this donning and doffing time.

The union thought that they would prefer to get some other compensation instead.

Whether that provision of the collective bargaining agreement is effective depends on 29 U.S.C. Section 203(o), which allows unions to bargain over whether employers must pay for “time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday.”

The workers argued that the donning and doffing of protective gear does not count as changing clothes.

The District Court disagreed granting summary judgment to U.S. Steel and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

We granted certiorari to determine the meaning of the phrase “changing clothes” and today, we affirm.

The workers argue that protective clothing is not clothes.

That seems to us unsupported by both the text of the statute and ordinary logic.

We give the word “clothes” its common and contemporary meaning.

Dictionaries from the time of the statute's enactment showed that clothes are items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.

While not supporting the worker's argument, protective clothing is ipso facto not clothes, neither does this definition support the construction adopted by some courts and advocated by U.S. Steel here, which says that clothes consist of everything that a person wears.

Our interpretation leaves a room for distinguishing between clothes and wearable items that are not clothes such as certain heavy equipment and devices.

So much for clothes.

What about the statutory phrase, “changing clothes”?

The workers argue that the donning and doffing of protective gear does not qualify as changing clothes because the gear is often put on over rather than substituted for street clothes.

It is true enough that the normal meaning of changing clothes like changing a diaper or changing a tire ordinarily connotes substitution.

But changing can connote alternation and the broader statutory context here makes clear that the second meaning applies.

Time spent in changing clothes includes time spent in altering dress.

Turning to the particulars of the this case, the workers have pointed to 12 pieces of protective gear, nine of which easily meet this Court's interpretation of clothes, such things as hoods and gloves so forth.

The question then arises whether the time devoted to donning and doffing those items must be spent -- must be separated from the time spent on donning and doffing the remaining three items.

The Court of Appeals here like other Courts of Appeals would apply to these three items, the maxim de minimis non curat lex.

The law does not take account of trifles.

We think that maxim ill suited to this statute which is all about trifles.