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Haney v. Blake

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

June 20, 2017

BRYAN HANEY and SAM HOGUE, Plaintiffs,
v.
HUGHIE R. BLAKE, a married man, and the marital community of HUGHIE R. BLAKE and KELLY BLAKE, MARINE STAR, LLC, an Alaska Corporation, the F/V ODYSSEY O.N. 646525, and the F/V SIERRA ALLENE O.N. 125061, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          Robert S. Lasnik United States District Judge.

         This matter was heard by the Court in a bench trial commencing on March 6, 2017, and concluding on March 8, 2017. The parties submitted their closing arguments in writing on March 16, 2017. Bryan Haney and Sam Hogue brought this action alleging that their former employer, Hughie Blake, owed them money for work performed aboard Mr. Blake's fishing vessels over the course of several seasons between 2012 and 2014. Plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney's fees.

         FINDINGS OF FACT

         By a preponderance of the evidence, the Court finds as follows:

         Hughie Blake owns and operates several small fishing vessels, which he uses for gillnetting, salmon- and herring-seining, longlining, and diving. Mr. Blake fishes in Prince William Sound off the shores of Alaska and sells his fish to Ocean Beauty Seafoods (“Ocean Beauty”), a processor with offices in Seattle and a plant in Cordova, Alaska. Mr. Blake seasonally hires deckhands to help operate his fishing vessels and pays each deckhand a share of the fishing proceeds from the season worked. Those shares are generally set as a percentage and agreed to at the time of hire as a term of employment.

         Ocean Beauty routinely loans money to fishermen who conduct regular business with it as an advance on future fish payments. Some of these loans are in the form of checks that Ocean Beauty issues on the fisherman's behalf. Ocean Beauty documents its payments and loans to each fisherman as an account in that fisherman's name. Both Hughie Blake and Bryan Haney had accounts with Ocean Beauty during the seasons in question.

         By Mr. Blake's own account, he is “not very good with books, ” and as a result, during the 2012 and 2013 fishing seasons at issue here, his “books were a mess” and had “a lot of mistakes.” Mr. Blake describes himself as a “positive guy” who “want[s his] guys to be happy, ” and the Court finds that some of the misunderstandings between the plaintiffs and Mr. Blake likely resulted from Mr. Blake's tendency to exaggerate numbers and over-promise out of a desire to make his crew members happy.

         A. Sam Hogue

         1. 2012 Season

         In 2012, Mr. Blake hired Sam Hogue to work as a deckhand during the salmon-seining season from roughly June to August, and to perform certain pre-season work on Mr. Blake's fishing vessel, the F/V Odyssey, before the salmon-seining season got underway. At the time, Mr. Hogue was a college student on summer vacation. He had found the summer job with Mr. Blake through a friend of his parents. (Mr. Hogue worked for Mr. Blake the previous summer, as well, but only the 2012 and 2013 seasons are at issue in this case.)

         That May, while the Odyssey was in dry-dock in Cordova, Mr. Hogue performed various repair and maintenance tasks to prepare the boat for the salmon-seining season, such as sanding the bottom of the boat, applying primer and gel-coat, removing old wiring, and replacing the boat's hot-water heater. During this time, Mr. Hogue lived on the boat, and Mr. Blake did not charge him for room or board.

         On May 27, 2012, Mr. Blake gave Mr. Hogue a check for $2, 000, which Ocean Beauty had issued on Mr. Blake's account. Based on a conversation with Mr. Blake about the amount of pre-season work he had performed on the Odyssey, Mr. Hogue understood this $2, 000 to be a payment for his pre-season work. On the Ocean Beauty ledger for Mr. Blake's account, however, this $2, 000 check is noted as a “2012 Season Advance” to Mr. Hogue.

         As the salmon-seining season got underway at the beginning of July 2012, Mr. Hogue understood that Mr. Blake's boat would be fishing in a “co-op” - that is, a joint venture between two fishing vessels where the boats shared certain operating costs and pooled their proceeds for the season. Mr. Blake and Mr. Hogue agreed that Mr. Hogue's compensation would be 9% of the Odyssey's share of a two-boat co-op, less 4% of that sum, which would go toward the coop's spotter pilot's fee. Mr. Hogue and Mr. Blake did not create a written employment agreement for the 2012 season.

         Using the above figures and the receipts from the Odyssey's fish sales to Ocean Beauty (known as “fish tickets”), Mr. Hogue now estimates his total wages due from the 2012 salmon-seining season to be $24, 813.57: $22, 492.87 for Mr. Hogue's share of the 2012 season fish tickets; plus $2, 320.70 for Mr. Hogue's share of a $26, 859.92 production bonus that Ocean Beauty paid to Mr. Blake on March 14, 2013 to reward his business during the 2012 season.

         On August 23, 2012, at the end of the salmon-seining season, Mr. Blake paid Mr. Hogue $20, 000. On March 10, 2013, Mr. Blake paid Mr. Hogue an additional $2, 915.22. Mr. Blake eventually issued Mr. Hogue a 1099 tax form listing Mr. Hogue's total fishing-boat proceeds for 2012 as $24, 374.61, which, in addition to the payments for $20, 000 and $2, 915.22, included $1, 459.39 representing the value of Mr. Hogue's portion of the groceries that Mr. Blake bought for the crew during the 2012 season. Mr. Hogue now claims that Mr. Blake owes him an additional $1, 898.35 for the 2012 season: the difference between the $24, 813.57 that he calculates he is owed and the $22, 915.22 that he was paid.

         Mr. Blake does not dispute that Mr. Hogue was due $24, 813.57 in 2012 (in fact, he submits that Mr. Hogue was due $24, 823.01, apparently double-counting certain retroactive salmon-price adjustments, known as “retros”). Rather, Mr. Blake claims that the $2, 000 payment on May 27, 2012 was an advance on Mr. Hogue's salmon-seining compensation rather than payment for Mr. Hogue's pre-season work, and accordingly that he overpaid Mr. Hogue in 2012 ($24, 915.22 paid for $24, 823.01 due). Mr. Blake concedes that “there was probably a misunderstanding about” whether the $2, 000 was an advance or a payment for Mr. Hogue's preseason work, and the Court finds that Mr. Blake offered to pay Mr. Hogue $2, 000 as compensation for his pre-season work, and that Mr. Hogue accepted that offer.

         2. 2013 Season

         In June 2013, Mr. Blake again hired Mr. Hogue to work as a deckhand during the summer salmon-seining season. Mr. Blake and Mr. Hogue once again agreed that Mr. Hogue's compensation would be 9% of the Odyssey's share of a co-op (this year between three boats), less 4% of that sum for the co-op's spotter pilot's fee. As before, Mr. Hogue and Mr. Blake did not create a written employment agreement for the 2013 season.

         The 2013 salmon season in Prince William Sound was spectacularly productive, and the Odyssey was extremely successful. Based on his understanding of his compensation and the Odyssey's 2013 Ocean Beauty fish tickets, Mr. Hogue now estimates his total wages due from the 2013 salmon-seining season to be $65, 260.47: $57, 541.39 for Mr. Hogue's share of the 2013 season fish tickets[1]; plus $4, 320 for Mr. Hogue's share of a $50, 000 “Seiner Compensation” that Ocean Beauty paid to Mr. Blake in October 2013 to compensate for Ocean Beauty's failure to maximize the Odyssey's revenue during the profitable 2013 season; plus $3, 399.08 for Mr. Hogue's share of a $39, 341.17 production bonus that Ocean Beauty paid to Mr. Blake on April 24, 2014.

         On August 24, 2013, when Mr. Hogue left the vessel to return to college slightly before the end of the salmon-seining season, Mr. Blake paid Mr. Hogue $50, 000. On November 25, 2015, after this lawsuit was filed, Mr. Blake sent Mr. Hogue a check for $15, 558.67.

         Mr. Blake calculates Mr. Hogue's total compensation due in 2013 as $65, 424.33 (Mr. Hogue's share of the Odyssey's revenue up to August 23, 2013, when he left the boat, plus Mr. Hogue's share of Mr. Blake's 2013 Seiner Compensation). While Mr. Blake could not recall how he arrived at the $15, 558.67 figure for the check that he sent Mr. Hogue in November 2015, he testified that this check, combined with the $50, 000 payment and a $531.90 plane ticket that he bought for Mr. Hogue, totaled $66, 090.57 and thus exceeded the total compensation of $65, 424.33 owed to Mr. Hogue.[2] By contrast, the sum of the two checks paid to Mr. Hogue ($65, 558.67) exceeds Mr. Hogue's estimate of his 2013 wages due ($65, 260.47) by $298.20.

         In sum, Mr. Hogue estimates that Mr. Blake underpaid him in 2012 by $1, 898.35 and overpaid him in 2013 by $298.20. Accordingly, ...


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