United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
S. Lasnik United States District Judge.
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
preponderance of the evidence, the Court finds as follows:
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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; 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.
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.
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. 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.
Mr. Hogue estimates that Mr. Blake underpaid him in 2012 by
$1, 898.35 and overpaid him in 2013 by $298.20. Accordingly,