Overtime Bid by Offshore Rig Workers Roils High Court

Pelicans float on the water in 2010, with an offshore oil platform in the background in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Conservative members of the Supreme Court showed skepticism Tuesday as an oil-rig worker fought to have California overtime laws carry over to the outercontinental shelf.

“But that means that California then extends 200 miles out to sea,” said Justice Samuel Alito, about halfway through oral arguments this morning in a case between worker Brian Newton and the company Parker Drilling Management Services.

Arguing on Newton’s behalf today, Kellogg Hansen attorney David Frederick said that the balance between California law and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act is similar to how states can set minimum wages higher than the federal requirement without raising issues of pre-emption.

“It’s quite sensible why Congress would have said, substantively, we think that the state law ought to apply, but, to the extent that the secretary of interior perceives there to be inconsistencies with the federal standard we’re going to give the secretary the authority, regulatory authority, to displace that standard,” Frederick said.

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which applies to the band of land under the ocean that begins 3 nautical miles off of the mainland, rigs and other temporary and permanent structures that attach to the seabed are generally covered under federal law. In cases where there is no federal law that directly applies, however, the law adopts state law so long as it is “applicable and not inconsistent” with federal law.

Kirkland & Ellis attorney Paul Clement meanwhile argued for Parker Drilling on Tuesday that the state law is not applicable here because the Fair Labor Standards Act sets a nationwide standard for employment requirements.

Clement had the support of the U.S. government, with Assistant to the Solicitor General Christopher Michel saying that the plaintiff’s reading of the law contravenes 50 years of precedent about the OCSLA. 

“Respondent’s position … would essentially replicate the position on mainland California on the outer continental shelf, with the small exception that federal officials would enforce the law, which we think is inconsistent with the text, the purpose and the history of OCSLA,” Michel said.

Justice Stephen Breyer voiced concerns as well about the potential fallout of a ruling against Parker Drilling.

“I don’t know if it’s determinative, but I’m slightly worried about overturning a set of court of appeals decisions under which industry and labor and everyone have worked, 97 percent of them, for 50 years,” Breyer said.

While the justices in general appeared more receptive to Parker Drilling’s side of the case Tuesday, some did struggle to find a basis in the law for the company’s position.

“What I don’t see is a clear statement that says something like you want the word ‘applicable’ to mean, only if there’s a gap or a void,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.

The plaintiff in the case, Brian Newton, spent two years working on oil rigs that rise out of the Santa Barbara Channel, more than 3 miles off the California coast. Working on the rig two weeks at a time, Newton spent half his day on duty, the other half on standby.

Parker Drilling, which paid Newton for the 12 hours he was on duty, as well as for travel time to and from the rig, appealed to the Supreme Court after the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in favor of Newton created split with the Fifth Circuit.

In a 1969 case, the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit ruled that state law only applies under OCSLA when there is a gap in the federal code.

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