The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled on Monday that an employment law case involving golf course “volunteers” is not ready for appellate review, thereby leaving open the possibility a court could find the volunteers are employees.
Several years ago, the parks and recreation department of Florida’s Palm Beach County posted ads seeking volunteers to serve as course rangers, driving range attendants and bag drop attendance. The ads said that “hours vary” and “nights and weekends preferred.” The volunteers could socialize while working and benefit from “reduced fees to play and practice golf” at Osprey Point Golf Course in Boca Raton and other public courses in the county. They could also receive tips.
The volunteers performed various duties and assignments—such as cleaning golf clubs and loading and unloading golf bags—at the behest of course management. They were also instructed to not sit while on duty. Although not paid a wage, the discounts were significant. While the ordinary greens fee to play at Osprey Point was $96, a volunteer could play for just five dollars, saving $91. The value of the discount added up over time. One volunteer saved $8,645 over a 42-month period; two others saved $3,913 over a seven-month period and $2,821 over a 38-month period, respectively.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and social-distancing policies altered the volunteers’ workplace-like situation. They could no longer clean clubs or handle golf bags. Tip jars were also removed, which prompted one volunteer to complain to a course manager the county was unjustly profiting from his and other volunteers’ “free labor.”
In January 2021, three volunteers sued the county, arguing they were owed back wages for what they described as unpaid work. A few weeks later, two others filed consents to join Adams et al. v. Palm Beach County, thus opting into the litigation.
The five volunteers maintained they were employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal law that guarantees minimum wage and overtime pay for certain categories of employees. The volunteers depicted each round of discounted golf as a form of in-kind compensation (worth $91) consistent with a reasonable expectation of a wage or its equivalent. They argue the county’s golf facilities “hired volunteers to perform the same labor for which private golf facilities must pay employees proper wages.”
Palm Beach County disagreed, insisting that a reduced fee is not tantamount to compensation. The county stressed it explicitly sought “volunteers” who knew they wouldn’t be paid a wage and thus lacked a reasonable expectation of employment.
Last October, Florida federal judge Bruce Reinhart sided with the county and dismissed the lawsuit. Reinhart found that the volunteers fell “within an exception to the minimum wage laws for public agency volunteers.” He underscored how the job posting both omitted mention of wages and described discounted golf “as something the volunteer could ‘enjoy’, equivalent to being outdoors and getting to know others with similar interests.” The judge also deemed working as a ranger or cart attendant “akin to other positions” classifiable under the umbrella of volunteerism.
Reinhart further drew on Department of Labor regulations indicating that “individuals do not lose their volunteer status if they are provided reasonable benefits by a public agency.” So-called reasonable benefits include permitting volunteers to participate in group insurance plans or receive awards.
The judge also accentuated how the discounted rounds of golf were restricted to certain days, times and locations and how it doesn’t appear the county lost revenue. “Providing this benefit,” Reinhart wrote, “did not directly cost the County anything . . . there is no indication in the [complaint] that allowing these discounted rounds precluded others [who would pay full price] from using the courses.”
The volunteers appealed their loss, but on Monday the appellate court ruled that it lacks jurisdiction. The problem, a three-judge panel wrote, is that Reinhart didn’t address the two opt-in plaintiffs.
“The district court neither determined whether the opt-in plaintiffs were similarly situated to the named plaintiffs nor entered any dismissal or judgment as to their case,” the order stated. “The district court never mentioned—or dismissed—the opt-in plaintiffs.”
Since Reinhart didn’t adjudicate all claims against all parties, there was no “final decision” for the appellate court to review.
Given that Reinhart determined the first three volunteers’ claims were deficient under the law, he’ll presumably reason the same about the claims raised by the two opt-ins. The group of five can then appeal and hope for better luck at the appellate level.
Reinhart attracted public attention over the summer when he signed the warrant authorizing the F.B.I. to search the Mar-a-Lago estate of former President Donald Trump, who owns another golf course in Palm Beach County, Trump International Golf Club West Palm Beach.