Controlled Substances Act

It is not often when an employer defends a FLSA lawsuit by asserting that it is in an illegal business and therefore immune to suit. Sound funny? Well, that is precisely what a Colorado employer that furnishes security services to legal cannabis growers/sellers has pressed on the Tenth Circuit. The employer’s theory is that the workers are not entitled to allegedly unpaid overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act because their work is illegal under federal law. The case is entitled Kenney v. Helix TCS, and was argued before the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

The Company’s counsel argued that the collective action cannot proceed as the FLSA only applies to legal businesses. The lawyer claimed that all job functions engaged in by the workers amount to trafficking in illegal drugs. This case is fascinating because it highlights the tension between a state legalizing cannabis and its continuing illegality under federal law. The lawyer for the Company argued that this controversy entered the “legally ambiguous” sphere in which legal cannabis businesses operate.

The named plaintiff, an armed security guard who guarded growers and sellers, claimed he worked overtime many weeks and was not paid properly. He sought class certification for all such guards, going back three years. The Company moved to dismiss, arguing that the employee’s work (as he was dealing with a Schedule 1 drug under federal law) violated the federal Controlled Substances Act and was thus outside of FLSA coverage.

The district court Judge denied the motion and observed that other courts have not endorsed this concept. The Judge noted that in other cases involving businesses that violate federal laws, e.g. immigration, courts have ruled that these violations did not mean the businesses could not comply with other federal laws. However, the Judge certified the ruling for immediate appeal and thus it went (quickly) to the Tenth Circuit.

The lawyer for the plaintiff asserted that the FLSA does not have a requirement that employees subject to its jurisdiction must be engaged in “only” legal businesses. There was no outright mention of “lawfulness” in the law and there was nothing in the state statute that voided the dictates of the FLSA.

The Takeaway

Maybe Congress should make an exception to the FLSA for this industry, but it has not done so. Consider the implications of granting the employer’s motion to dismiss—it would be giving a business illegal under federal law an advantage over legal businesses by sanctioning the avoidance of paying overtime.

Hmm. Food for thought…