Authored by John P. Phillips
Seyfarth Synopsis: Recently the Ninth Circuit doubled down on its decision that service advisers at car dealerships are not exempt from the FLSA, despite being overturned once by the U.S. Supreme Court. This case gives the Supreme Court an excellent opportunity to address the proper construction of FLSA exemptions and allow the plain and common sense reading of the statute to govern.
A pending petition for writ of certiorari gives the U.S. Supreme Court a second opportunity to establish two important Fair Labor Standards Act issues: first, administrative agencies and courts should not lightly disregard decades of established practice when interpreting the FLSA, and second, the old canard that “exemptions should be narrowly construed against employers” should finally be put to bed. Employers across the country are hoping that the Supreme Court takes up Navarro, et al. v. Encino Motorcars, LLC for the second time. And with the addition of Justice Gorsuch to the Court, the time may be ripe to address these issues.
Just as this case gives the Supreme Court a second chance to resolve important FLSA-related issues, this is our second opportunity to write about this case. In early 2016, we explained how the Supreme Court had the chance to address far-reaching implications on the interpretation of FLSA exemptions. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not do so, instead deciding only that the Ninth Circuit had improperly relied on faulty Department of Labor regulations, and remanding the case to the Ninth Circuit.
In Navarro, et al. v. Encino Motorcars, LLC, a group of current and former car dealership employees who worked as service advisors brought a collective action under the FLSA in the Central District of California alleging that their dealership employer unlawfully failed to pay them overtime wages. As service advisors, the plaintiffs would meet and greet car owners as they entered the service area; evaluate customers’ service and repair needs; suggest services to be performed on the vehicle to address the customers’ complaints; solicit supplemental services to be performed (such as preventive maintenance); prepare price estimates for repairs and services; and inform the owner about the status of the vehicle. Service advisors did not receive an hourly wage or a salary but were instead paid by commission based on the services sold.
The district court dismissed the overtime claim and agreed with an unbroken line of authority from federal and state courts across the country. But the Ninth Circuit reversed, deferring to a DOL regulatory definition while acknowledging that its holding conflicted with every other court to have considered the question, and citing to the “rule” that FLSA “exemptions are narrowly construed against employers.”
The Supreme Court granted the dealership’s petition for a writ of certiorari and agreed to answer the question of “whether ‘service advisors’ at car dealerships are exempt.” Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not answer the question. Instead, the Court analyzed the DOL regulations, found them to have been issued without a reasoned or adequate explanation and, accordingly, ruled that the Ninth Circuit should not have relied upon them. Having decided this, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit rather than answer the ultimate question of whether the service advisers were exempt.
Predictably, the Ninth Circuit doubled down on its earlier opinion, ruling that the service advisers were not exempt under the FLSA. In its ruling, the Ninth Circuit admitted that service advisers fit in the “literal” reading of the statute, but decided that the literal reading was not what Congress intended. In addition, the Ninth Circuit again cited to the “longstanding rule” that FLSA exemptions “are to be narrowly construed against the employers seeking to assert them.”
Recently, Encino Motorcars appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, filing a petition for writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to hear the case again. The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether it will take the case, but employers and attorneys (not to mention car dealerships) around the country are hoping the Court takes this opportunity to address the important FLSA issues at stake in this case.
Potential Implications for FLSA Collective Actions
First, this case demonstrates the willingness of federal agencies and some courts to upend years of established industry practice. Here, car dealerships have relied on settled precedent and practice to treat service advisors as exempt since the 1970s. Every court to have examined the issue had found that service advisors were properly exempt from the FLSA. However, the DOL first departed from this precedent in 2011, and the Ninth Circuit followed suit.
In recent years, the Supreme Court has taken legal theories that would upend years of long-settled industry practice with a large grain of salt. As the Court recently noted, “while it may be ‘possible for an entire industry to be in violation of the [FLSA] for a long time without the Labor Department noticing,’ the ‘more plausible hypothesis’ is that the Department did not think the industry’s practice was unlawful.” Encino Motorcars pointed this out in their petition for writ of certiorari, and hopefully the Supreme Court will provide succinct guidance to agencies and courts that long-standing industry practice should be considered before any ruling that upends such reliance.
Second, the Ninth Circuit—in both of its opinions—relied on the doctrine that the FLSA’s exemptions should be narrowly construed against employers. This maxim has been increasingly questioned by the Supreme Court. In its petition, Encino Motorcars highlighted the late-Justice Scalia’s words, where he stated that the goal of a court interpreting a statute “should be neither liberally to expand nor strictly to constrict its meaning, but rather to get the meaning precisely right.” In fact, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, even referred to it as a “made-up canon” in the Supreme Court’s decision, and stated that it rests on an “elemental misunderstanding of the legislative process.” Nor are Justices Thomas and Alito likely to be alone. Although it is still a little early to speculate on Justice Gorsuch’s views, the justice once famously stated that “when the statute is plain it simply isn’t our business to appeal to legislative intentions.”
If the Supreme Court accepts the case, it would provide the Court an excellent opportunity to address repeat problems in FLSA jurisprudence and help support a more just and statute-based approach to interpreting FLSA exemptions.