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Court Says No Joint Employer Because 'Employer' Is a Homonym

By William Vogeler, Esq. on August 06, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Gaudencio Garcia-Celestino did not expect to get a grammar lesson from the federal appeals court.

In Garcia-Celestino v. Ruiz Harvesting, Inc., the issue was whether he worked for an "employer" under general common law principles. The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals said he did not, which meant he lost his case against a company that employed him to pick fruit.

Fortunately for Garcia-Celestino and his fellow workers, they settled their claims against another company that paid them to do the work. The difference, the appeals court said, came down to a homonym.

The Fair Labor Standards Act

Basically, the case was about the definition of "employer" under common law and the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Eleventh Circuit said it's not the same for both, citing the American Heritage Dictionary to explain the difference.

"The English language contains many examples of homonyms -- 'words that have the same sound and often the same spelling but differ in meaning'" Judge Robin Rosenbaum wrote for the appeals court. "But the language of the law has its share of homonyms, too, and in this case we confront a couple of subtle ones."

"Employer" has different meanings under the common law and the FLSA, the judges said, and it turns on the meaning of "control."

Ruiz Harvesting hired the plaintiffs to pick fruit at citrus groves owned by Consolidated Citrus. But, according to the court, Ruiz Harvesting forced them to kick back a portion of their paychecks under threat of deportation.

No Joint Employer

The fruit-pickers sued both companies. Ruiz Harvesting settled with the plaintiffs, and a judge found Consolidated Citrus liable as a joint employer.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed, saying the trial judge used the wrong definition of employer. The appeals court said he should have used the common law definition of an employer, which is more narrow than under the statute.

The appeals panel said it was about control -- and homonyms.

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