Authored by Gerald Maatman, Jr. 

Seyfarth Synopsis: Workplace class action filings were flat overall and even decreased as compared to levels in 2015. However, that is apt to change in 2017. In the 4th in a series of blog postings on workplace class action trends, we examine what employers are likely to see in 2017.

Introduction

Overall complex employment-related litigation filings increased in 2016 insofar as employment discrimination cases were concerned, but decreased in the areas of ERISA class actions, governmental enforcement litigation, and wage & hour collective actions and class actions. For the past decade, wage & hour class actions and collective actions have been the leading type of “high stakes” lawsuits being pursued by the plaintiffs’ bar. Each year the number of such case filings increased. However, for the first time in over a decade, case filing statistics for 2016 reflected that wage & hour litigation decreased over the past year.

Additional factors set to coalesce in 2017 – including litigation over the new FLSA regulations and the direction of wage & hour enforcement under the Trump Administration – are apt to drive these exposures for Corporate America. To the extent that government enforcement of wage & hour laws is ratcheted down, the private plaintiffs’ bar likely will “fill the void” and again increase the number of wage & hour lawsuit filings.

Complex Employment-Related Litigation Filing Trends In 2016

While shareholder and securities class action filings witnessed an increase in 2016, employment-related class action filings remained relatively flat.

By the numbers, filings for employment discrimination and ERISA claims were basically flat over the past year, while the volume of wage & hour cases decreased for the first time in over a decade.

By the close of the year, ERISA lawsuits totaled 6,530 filings (down slightly as compared to 6,925 in 2015 and 7,163 in 2014), FLSA lawsuits totaled 8,308 filings (down as compared to 8,954 in 2015 and up from 8,066 in 2014), and employment discrimination lawsuits totaled 11,593 filings (an increase from 11,550 in 2015 and a decrease from 11,867 in 2014).

In terms of employment discrimination cases, however, the potential exists for a significant jump in case filings in the coming year, as the charge number totals at the EEOC in 2015 and 2016 reached record levels in the 52-year history of the Commission; due to the time-lag in the period from the filing of a charge to the filing of a subsequent lawsuit, the charges in the EEOC’s inventory will become ripe for the initiation of lawsuits in 2017.

The Wave Of FLSA Case Filings Finally Crested

By the numbers, FLSA collective action litigation filings in 2016 far outpaced other types of employment-related class action filings; virtually all FLSA lawsuits are filed and litigated as collective actions.  Up until 2015, lawsuit filings reflected year-after-year increases in the volume of wage & hour litigation pursued in federal courts since 2000; statistically, wage & hour filings have increased by over 450% in the last 15 years.

The fact of the first decrease in FLSA lawsuit filings in 15 years is noteworthy in and of itself. However, a peek behind these numbers confirms that with 8,308 lawsuit filings, 2016 was the second highest year ever in the filing of such cases (only eclipsed by 2015, when 8,954 lawsuits were commenced).

Given this trend, employers may well see record-breaking numbers of FLSA filings in 2017.  Various factors are contributing to the fueling of these lawsuits, including: (i) new FLSA regulations on overtime exemptions in 2016, which have been delayed in terms of their implementation due to legal challenges by 13 states; (ii) minimum wage hikes in 21 states and 22 major cities set to take effect in 2017; and (iii) the intense focus on independent contractor classification and joint employer status, especially in the franchisor-franchisee context. Layered on top of those issues is the difficulty of applying a New Deal piece of legislation to the realities of the digital workplace that no lawmakers could have contemplated in 1938. The compromises that led to the passage of the legislation in the New Deal meant that ambiguities, omitted terms, and unanswered questions abound under the FLSA (something as basic as the definition of the word “work” does not exist in the statute), and the plaintiffs’ bar is suing over those issues at a record pace.

Virtually all FLSA lawsuits are filed as collective actions; therefore, these filings represent the most significant exposure to employers in terms of any workplace laws.  By industry, retail and hospitality companies experienced a deluge of wage & hour class actions in 2016.

This trend is illustrated by the following chart:

The Dynamics Of Wage & Hour Litigation – Low Investment / High Return

The story behind these numbers is indicative of how the plaintiffs’ class action bar chooses cases to litigate. It has a diminished appetite to invest in long-term cases that are fought for years, and where the chance of a plaintiffs’ victory is fraught with challenges either as to certification or on the merits. Hence, this reflects the various differences in success factors in bringing employment discrimination and ERISA class actions, as compared to FLSA collective actions.

Obtaining a “first stage” conditional certification order is possible without a “front end” investment in the case (e.g., no expert is needed unlike the situation when certification is sought in an ERISA or employment discrimination class action) and without conducting significant discovery due to the certification standards under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).  Certification can be achieved in a shorter period of time (in 2 to 6 months after the filing of the lawsuit) and with little expenditure of attorneys’ efforts on time-consuming discovery or with the costs of an expert. As a result, to the extent that litigation of class actions by plaintiffs’ lawyers are viewed as an investment, prosecution of wage & hour lawsuits is a relatively low cost investment without significant barriers to entry relative to other types of workplace class action litigation. As compared to ERISA and employment discrimination class actions, FLSA litigation is less difficult or protracted, and more cost-effective and predictable. In terms of their “rate of return,” the plaintiffs’ bar can convert their case filings more readily into certification orders, and create the conditions for opportunistic settlements over shorter periods of time. The certification statistics for 2016 confirm these factors.

What Is In Store For 2017

Has the wage & hour litigation crested for good, or will 2017 see more case filing? My bet is that employers will see more case filings.

An increasing phenomenon in the growth of wage & hour litigation is worker awareness. Wage & hour laws are usually the domain of specialists, but in 2016 wage & hour issues made front-page news.  The widespread public attention to how employees are paid almost certainly contributed to the sheer number of suits.  Big verdicts and record settlements also played a part, as success typically begets copy-cats and litigation is no exception. Yet, the pervasive influence of technology is also helping to fuel this litigation trend. Technology has opened the doors for unprecedented levels of marketing and advertising by the plaintiffs’ bar – either through direct soliciting of putative class members or in advancing the overall cause of lawsuits. Technology allows for the virtual commercialization of wage & hour cases through the Internet and social media. These factors all suggest that 2017 will see an increase in wage & hour lawsuit filings.

And state court cases are not to be forgotten. In 2016, wage & hour class actions filed in state court also represented an increasingly important part of this trend.  Most pronounced in this respect were filings in the state courts of California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.  In particular, California continued its status in 2016 as a breeding ground for wage & hour class action litigation due to laxer class certification standards under state law, exceedingly generous damages remedies for workers, and more plaintiff-friendly approaches to class certification as well as wage & hour issues under the California Labor Code.  For the fourth year out of the last five, the American Tort Reform Association (“ATRA”) selected California as one of the nation’s worst “judicial hellholes” as measured by the systematic application of laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner. Calling California one of the worst of the worst jurisdictions, the ATRA described the Golden State as indeed that for plaintiffs’ lawyers “seeking riches and the expense of employers …” and where “lawmakers, prosecutors, and judges have long aided and abetted this massive redistribution of wealth.”

 

Authored by Alex Passantino

It’s the week before Christmas; ’16’s nearly done.
As we sit back and ponder the Year of 541.
The journey’s been long; it’s taken some time.
What’s happened thus far? Let us tell you in rhyme.

As the year drew anew, we sat with breath bated,
While within DOL they discussed and debated.
Should we take our proposal and set it on fire?”
“Take the percentage of time test and set the bar higher?”

“No, we meant what we said and we said what we meant,
We’ll still increase the salary, but we’ll change the percent.”
“Messing with duties will cause us nothing but trouble,
So just take the old salary, and make the new one be . . . double.”

From the moment it published, the rule came under attack.
Even Congress started plotting to take it all back.
But summer it came, then autumn did too.
And raises or OT would be in on 12/2.

With communications all drafted . . . maybe one last correction,
The narrative changed with November’s election.
Might the rules be undone by a Trump Administration?
Or would December’s due date cause such plans great frustration?

We considered . . . while preparing for our Turkey Day function,
When a court in East Texas stopped the rules by injunction.
A week before kickoff. For some ‘twas too late.
For others, they scooped up their plans and yelled “Wait!”

With more motions, appeals, and attempts to intervene,
We look at it all and ask “What does this mean?”
There’s gossip, speculation, and some wack-a-doo theories.
Apropos for a year when the Cubs won the Series.

We’ll know when we know, maybe a few days before.
More excitement is what ‘17 has in store.
But before we look forward, we’ll take one last look back.
Because wage-hour issues this year did not lack.

Some employers may feel there’s less cause for concern
When facing a lawsuit filed by an intern.
And as they consider which students their program will host,
Pay special attention to who benefits most.

California, of course, continued its wage-hour saga.
Whether sitting or standing or some thing they call PAGA.
And if plaintiffs have no trial plan, make sure you get your shots in,
Before calculating piece rate using IBM’s Watson.

Turning back east, we recall how DOL’s year went,
Beginning with January’s missive about joint employment.
A description of vertical and horizontal relations,
Should it “meet with an accident,” there’ll be standing ovations.

Spring brought a trip to SCOTUS for the service advisor.
DOL changed the reg; its explanation? “We’re wiser.”
But for positions the agency has held very long,
The Supremes told the Department “Hey, you’re doing it wrong.”

The rest of the year deserves more time to expound.
From exempt underwriters to permission to round.
And here’s hoping that someday the world will just get it,
And create a singular rule that involves the tip credit.

Decertification. Half-time. Franchise compliance.
A wide breadth of issues that appear with reliance.
But the future’s a mystery, so with great anticipation,
Happy New Year, and Thank You — Love, wagehourlitigation.

Capitol HillAuthored by Alex Passantino

As the nation waited for the final states to be called in the early morning hours on Wednesday, we here at the Wage & Hour Litigation Blog focused on our one thing:  what impact would the result have on the DOL’s overtime exemption regulations scheduled to go into effect on December 1, 2016?  How does the election of a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and President-Elect Donald Trump change what employers should be doing as we speed towards the December 1 deadline?

The short answer is that — at least for the near-term — employers should continue the same way as they have been, with a laser focus on being in compliance by December 1.

That being said, there are a couple of ways that the regulations can be stopped before December 1.  And there are a couple of others that may change the game after December 1.

The first path is through the Eastern District of Texas.  As we have reported previously, 21 states and dozens of trade associations filed separate lawsuits (which since have been consolidated) challenging the overtime exemptions rules on a variety of grounds.  A hearing on the states’ motion for injunctive relief is scheduled for next week, on November 16.  The trade associations are being permitted to participate as amici in the states’ case, and also have filed an expedited motion for summary judgment.  It is possible that the judge will enjoin the rules in advance of the December 1 effective date.  As is the case with most litigation, however, that result is less than certain.

A second pre-December 1 path to stopping — or at least delaying — the overtime exemption regulations is through Senator Alexander’s Overtime Reform and Review Act, S. 3464.  That bill would — by statute, not by regulation — increase the salary level to $692 per week on December 1, 2016, then increase it again in 2018, 2019, and 2020 until it hit $913/week.  The bill also contains special provisions protecting nonprofit, state and local government, and education employers from salary increases unless certain conditions are met.  Although the Senate has been expected to take up the bill upon return to Capitol Hill, the short legislative calendar and the threat of a veto by President Obama pose significant hurdles to relief before the December 1 deadline.

Once we get into 2017, there are additional tools at the disposal of Congress and a Trump Administration.  With the new salary level taking effect nearly eight weeks before Inauguration Day, however, there will be substantial political calculations involved in any use of those tools.

One tool is the seldom-used Congressional Review Act, a law that allows Congress to review and disapprove new agency regulations within prescribed time periods.  Congress could pass a “resolution of disapproval” of the new regulations that would have the effect of rescinding the rules.  Under the CRA, any regulation issued within the final 60 legislative days before Congress adjourns sine die is treated as having been issued on the 15th legislative day of the next session of Congress.  This allows the CRA resolution to be considered by the new Congress and, in this case, the new President, which makes it much more likely that the resolution will be successful.  Because the final 60 legislative days can be counted only in retrospect, the regulations that might be subject to this procedure are unknown.  An early estimate placed the “deadline” at May 16, 2016.  The overtime exemption rules were issued on May 23, 2016, which would place them within the review period.  Whether they actually fall within that period depends on how much Congress is in session over the coming weeks.  Assuming the overtime exemption rules fall within the relevant period, in the next session of Congress, and after January 20, 2017, President Trump could sign the CRA resolution, which would make it as if the rules never existed.

Finally, we could see rulemaking by the Trump Administration, such as a notice-and-comment rulemaking revising the salary level downward and/or eliminating the three-year automatic update provision.  Going through the notice-and-comment process would be time-consuming and likely would not result in any relief on the salary level until well into 2017, at best.

Ultimately, employers should continue their efforts to be compliant by December 1.  There are far too many variables at this point to conclude otherwise.

Authored by Abigail Cahak

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Supreme Court dealt a blow to the Department of Labor’s rulemaking procedures, criticizing the agency for explicitly changing its long-standing treatment  of automobile service advisors as overtime exempt while saying “almost nothing” regarding the reasons for the abrupt change.

This week, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the Department of Labor’s rulemaking procedures, criticizing the agency for explicitly changing its long-standing treatment  of automobile service advisors as overtime exempt while saying “almost nothing” regarding the reasons for the abrupt change.

The decision, echoing earlier criticisms of the DOL by the Court for taking new positions on who is and isn’t exempt in Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp. when considering the exempt status of pharmaceutical sales representatives, may be of use to employers in challenging other recent DOL regulatory changes.

The Encino Motorcars Decision

Automobile service advisors employed by dealerships are generally responsible for meeting with customers, listening to their concerns about their cars, suggesting repair or maintenance services, selling new accessories or replacement parts, recording service orders, following up with customers as services are performed, and explaining repair and maintenance work when customers return for their vehicles.

The exempt status of such employees flip-flopped throughout the 1960s and 1970s; however, in 1978 the DOL issued an opinion letter specifically taking the position that service advisors could be overtime exempt under 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(10)(A). The DOL confirmed this position nine years later when it clarified in its Field Operations Handbook that service advisors were to be treated as exempt. Finally, in 2008, the DOL issued a notice of proposed rulemaking stating that it intended to revise its regulations to reflect the overwhelming court authority on the matter and its own long-standing practice on the issue.

In 2011, DOL issued a final rule addressing service advisors, as well as a number of other issues on a broad range of topics.  Many of these reversed course from previous long-held DOL positions, including the DOL’s announcement that its 2008 proposal on service advisors would be rejected and the final rule would state the exact opposite: that service advisors are not exempt because they do not themselves sell automobiles.

In Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, the Supreme Court concluded that the Ninth Circuit improperly accorded Chevron deference to the DOL’s 2011 final rule in a suit alleging that the defendant dealership had improperly classified its service advisors. The Ninth Circuit had previously reversed, based on deference to the 2011 regulation, the District Court’s dismissal of the case as to the exemption of service advisors.

The Supreme Court started by noting that it must defer to a federal agency’s interpretation of ambiguous law if that interpretation is a “reasonable” one. But deference is not warranted when the agency does not give “adequate reasons for its decisions” and “where the agency has failed to provide even the minimal level of analysis, its action is arbitrary and capricious and so cannot carry the force of law.” This is particularly important where an agency is changing an existing policy and as such it must “provide a reasoned explanation for the change.”

Under these principles, the Court concluded that the Department’s 2011 regulation was not entitled deference because it offered “barely any explanation” for the change in interpretation. The Court stressed that “[t]he retail automobile and truck dealership industry had relied since 1978 on the Department’s position that service advisors were exempt from the FLSA’s overtime pay requirements” and had “negotiated and structured their compensation plans against this background understanding.” Therefore, “[i]n light of this background, the Department needed a more reasoned explanation for its decision to depart from its existing enforcement policy.” Accordingly, the Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision an instructed it “to interpret the statute in the first instance.”

Potential Implications of the Supreme Court’s Decision

The Court’s ruling won’t have a direct impact on most employers — only a few employ automobile service advisors.  But its reasoning could have wide-ranging implications. The Court commanded that, when reversing course with new regulations, the DOL must show good reasons for the new policy. The automobile service advisor regulation was only one part of a 2011 series of regulations from the DOL in which the DOL changed its regulations, including several proposed interpretations on other FLSA issues from the DOL during the Bush Administration, including the tip credit, tip pooling, and fluctuating workweek.  To the extent the DOL’s explanation for the change is wanting, those changes are now subject to challenge.

ghost-582113_1920Authored by Jeff Glaser

 

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals cites to the FLSA’s purpose and spirit in upholding the dismissal of a minimum wage and overtime claim brought by a highly paid computer software and hardware engineer.

As we’ve discussed on this blog before, the Supreme Court’s decision in Christopher v SmithKline Beecham Corp. had many layers. In holding that pharmaceutical sales representatives were subject to the FLSA’s outside sales exemption, the Court touched on the purpose and spirit of the Act. Justice Alito, the author of the majority opinion, explained that highly paid employees, such as pharmaceutical sales representatives, are “hardly the kind of employees that the FLSA was intended to protect.” This dicta could apply well beyond the confines of pharmaceutical representatives and the outside sales exemption. It could suggest an additional consideration in any FLSA lawsuit involving highly paid individuals.

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit picked up and expanded this line with its decision in Pioch v. Ibex Engineering Services, Inc. Pioch worked at Ibex for almost ten years as a computer software and hardware engineer. Ibex paid him on an hourly basis, ranging from $50 to $85.40 per hour. He received straight time for any hours he worked over 40 in a week, but, based on the computer professional exemption, Pioch did not receive an overtime premium. The computer professional exemption applies to employees who perform certain computer-related duties and are paid at least $455 per week or, if compensated on an hourly basis, $27.63 per hour.

Pioch resigned from Ibex after an internal investigation concluded that he improperly collected per diem payments amounting to nearly $150,000. As a result of the investigation, Ibex withheld Pioch’s final paycheck of $13,367.20, which represented three weeks of work. Pioch brought suit in the Southern District of Florida, alleging, among other things, that Ibex violated the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements by withholding his last paycheck and failing to compensate him at all for three weeks of employment.

The district court granted Ibex summary judgment on Pioch’s FLSA claims, finding that the computer professional exemption applied to Pioch’s entire employment with Ibex, including the last three weeks of employment when he didn’t receive any pay at all.

The Eleventh Circuit agreed. In reaching this decision, the court followed the Supreme Court’s lead in Christopher, and engaged in its own analysis of the purpose and spirit of the FLSA. It explained that “read[ing] the FLSA blindly, without appreciation for the social goals Congress sought, would … do violence to the FLSA’s spirit.” After reviewing these goals, the court concluded that Congress intended the FLSA to “aid the unprotected, unorganized, and lowest paid of the nation’s working population”—not “a highly-paid hourly employee typically earning over six figures a year,” like Pioch.

Guided by this interpretation, the Eleventh Circuit held that Pioch’s exempt status did not “evaporate” simply because Ibex withheld his final paycheck. Ibex promised to pay Pioch many times more than the minimum amount required under the computer professional exemption. Ibex’s alleged failure to follow this promise by withholding Pioch’s final paycheck is a matter for state contract law, not the FLSA. To this point, the court explained that “[w]hat Mr. Pioch is essentially trying to do is assert a state-law breach of contract claim, for his agreed-to hourly rate, through the FLSA.” The FLSA, though, is “not a vehicle for litigating breach of contract disputes,” and therefore Pioch’s FLSA claim was properly dismissed.

Like Christopher, the Pioch decision is helpful to employers on multiple levels. Narrowly, it finds that the withholding of a final paycheck does not invalidate the exempt status of an hourly employee otherwise subject to the computer professional exemption. More broadly, it indicates, as the Supreme Court did, that the spirit and purpose of the FLSA is a valid consideration when determining the Act’s application to highly paid employees.

Authored by Alex Passantino

Tomorrow, the Department of Labor’s long-awaited revisions to the Fair Labor Standards Act’s white collar exemption will be announced. Although there certainly will be additional nuance identified once the entire package has been made available, here are the bottom line changes:

  • The new salary level required for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions will be $913 per week, which translates to $47,476 per year.
  • Up to 10% of the salary level can be met with bonuses and commissions. For employers to credit nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments toward a portion of the standard salary level test, however, such payments must be paid on a quarterly or more frequent basis and the employer is “permitted” to make a “catch-up” payment. More specific details of this new development are still unclear.
  • The new salary level required to take advantage of the highly-compensated employee provision of the exemptions will be $134,004 per year. Of that, $913 per week must be paid on a salary basis.
  • The new levels will be effective on December 1, 2016. December 1 is a Thursday, which means that salary increases to ensure continued use of the exemption for weekly/biweekly employees must be made for the workweek (or pay period) that includes December 1.
  • The salary level will be increased automatically every three years, starting in 2020. The amount will be based on the 40th percentile of full-time salaried workers in the region in which the salary level is lowest (historically, the South). The Department will publish the information in the Federal Register in advance of the increase. It is expected that the salary will be $51,000 per year on January 1, 2020.

The salary level represents a slight reduction from the expected level of $50,440 per year, which was identified by the Department in its proposed rule last year. In addition, although an automatic increase was proposed and expected, doing so every three years—instead of annually—provides a small relief for the compensation planning process.

Over the past year, there has been a great deal of discussion about what the Final Rule might contain. Given those discussions, it is notable that the final rule does not:

  • change the regulatory text for primary duty;
  • revise the tests for the duties required of executive, administrative, or professional employees;
  • amend the salary basis test;
  • apply any new compensation standards to doctors, lawyers, teachers, or outside sales employees; or
  • make any changes to the computer professional exemption (other than the salary increase, as may be applicable).

We will keep you updated once the Final Rule is available in its entirety.

You can register for our webinar discussing the changes here.

UPDATE (5/18/16): The Final Rule is posted.

Authored by Hillary J. Massey

Employers have a new tool for opposing conditional and class certification of overtime claims by financial advisors and other exempt employees—last week, a judge in the District of New Jersey denied conditional and class certification of such claims because the plaintiffs failed to show that common issues predominated. The court, pointing to other decisions denying class status to financial advisors in recent years, concluded that the advisors’ duties varied significantly and required individual treatment. While recent headlines have announced large settlements of class claims by financial advisors, this decision bolsters employers’ opposition to those and other purported wage and hour class and collective claims.

The four named plaintiffs brought suit under the FLSA and the laws of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, claiming that they and the purported class members were entitled to overtime pay and business expenses, and proposing three classes and an opt-in federal collective. Plaintiffs contended the bank’s uniform categorization of financial advisors as exempt was improper because the advisors regularly made sales “cold calls,” regularly attended networking events to attract new clients, were paid based on their ability to generate sales, were heavily supervised, and had no role in managerial decisions affecting the bank’s business.

Denying plaintiffs’ motions, the judge first concluded that plaintiffs failed to establish their claims were typical and they were adequate representatives of the class because, unlike the plaintiffs, many proposed class members had signed releases of all claims.  The court explained it was unclear how the class representatives would challenge releases they did not sign.

On predominance, the judge concluded that the bank’s policies, plaintiffs’ depositions, and the declarations submitted with the bank’s opposition demonstrated that financial advisors varied in:

  • how often they sold financial products;
  • how they were supervised;
  • how they were paid;
  • what types of clients they served; and
  • how much autonomy they enjoyed.

For example, one plaintiff testified that some advisors did cold calling while others did not, and plaintiffs testified that as their business became more established, they spent less time generating sales.  The record also showed that some managers were involved in the day-to-day work of their financial advisors, but others were more hands off.  Thus the court concluded that common questions did not predominate.

As in another case we recently discussed, where the Sixth Circuit upheld the dismissal of a proposed collective action of bank loan underwriters, the court here also rejected plaintiffs’ heavy reliance on the DOL’s 2010 Administrative Interpretation concerning mortgage loan officers’ non-exempt status, noting that that the Interpretation did not apply to financial advisors.

Finally, despite a “lenient standard,” the judge denied plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification under the FLSA.  Plaintiffs could not meet their burden by merely showing that the bank had a uniform policy of treating financial advisors as exempt, and the significant class discovery record revealed that financial advisors’ duties varied greatly.

The case will now proceed on the merits of the claims of the four individual plaintiffs only.

Authored by Alex Passantino

The Department of Labor has submitted the final overtime rule to OMB for review. Typically, OMB review takes 30 to 60 days. Last year, OMB reviewed the proposed rule for just about 60 days before approving it. On this timetable, DOL is looking at the possibility of a May date for publication of a final rule.

While at OMB, the public has no details on the particulars. The specific provisions only will be revealed once the final rule clears OMB review and is published in the Federal Register.

We will, of course, keep you updated of further developments.

Co-authored by Steve Shardonofsky and Ashley Hymel

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently sided with an ever-increasing line of cases clarifying the type of payments that may be added to a fixed salary without violating the fluctuating workweek method described in 29 C.F.R § 778.114.  The Court distinguished additional hourly-based pay from performance-based bonuses in this context, and re-affirmed that employers retain significant discretion in crafting and implementing creative compensation plans — including pay plans that combine various types of compensation — to meet business needs and incentivize their workers.

The Plaintiff’s Attack on GNC’s “Combo” Pay Plan

In Lalli v. General Nutrition Centers, In., et al., GNC Store Manager Joseph Lalli received a fixed weekly salary regardless of his hours worked, plus weekly commissions for his sales. Because he received a fixed salary for fluctuating hours plus weekly performance-based bonuses, GNC calculated his overtime rate using the “half-time” method outlined in the FLSA interpretive bulletins at 29 C.F.R § 778.114 and § 778.118.  Lalli challenged the company’s overtime calculations on the basis that his commissions altered the fixed nature of his weekly pay and thus removed his compensation from the half-time purview of Section 778.114.

Employee Compensation: Have It Your Way (Almost)

In denying the Plaintiff’s claims (more on that below), the First Circuit confirmed that employers should be able to structure compensation plans to suit their business needs and incentivize their workers, and that employers should not be restrained by the compensation plan examples outlined in 29 C.F.R. § 778.109-.122.  While noting that the two pay plans at issue (fixed salary for fluctuating hours and commissions) were “‘examples’ of compliant pay structures,” the First Circuit explicitly rejected the implication that a “pay scheme must fall within a regulatory example in order to comply with the [FLSA].”  As in this case, the Court explained, “different types of remuneration…may be combined in a compliant compensation plan.”  Indeed, the Court concluded, “[i]t was not the purpose of Congress in enacting the [FLSA] to impose upon the almost infinite variety of employment situations a single, rigid form of wage agreements.”

Additional Performance-Based Pay Does Not Jeopardize the Fluctuating Workeek Method

Lalli argued his salary was not “fixed” for purposes of Section 778.114 because his compensation fluctuated from week to week on account of the commissions he earned, citing in support the First Circuit’s 2003 O’Brien v. Town of Agawam decision and an April 2011 DOL bulletin.

The O’Brien court held that contractually-stipulated overtime pay for each hour in excess of eight per shift and an additional bonus of $10 per week for nightshifts, in addition to the employees’ salaries, disrupted the “fixed salary” element of the fluctuating workweek.  Further, in July 2008, the DOL proposed a change to 29 C.F.R. § 778.114 to clarify the validity of the fluctuating workweek when paired with “overtime premiums and other bonus and non-overtime premiums.”  In its April 2011 bulletin, however, the DOL changed course and opted to leave Section 778.114 unaltered.  Lalli argued that this change of heart was meant to signal that Section 778.114 is not applicable whenever bonuses or additional payments are included on top of a fixed salary.

According to the First Circuit, both authorities were inapposite to this case.  “[N]either the O’Brien decision nor the DOL’s April 2011 bulletin,” the Court noted, “reach or answer the particular question posed here: whether a compensation structure employing a fixed salary still complies with section 778.114 when it includes additional, variable performance-based commissions.”  O’Brien was distinguishable, the Court said, because Lalli’s performance-based compensation was unrelated to hours worked.  Similarly, the DOL’s 2011 bulletin was unavailing because it cited only to cases rejecting hours-based bonuses. As the First Circuit observed, “[i]f anything, the DOL bulletin indirectly approved of the developing distinction between time-based and performance-based bonuses.”

Ultimately, the Court rejected Lalli’s plea that “two rights make a wrong,” holding that “GNC’s pay scheme epitomizes the compensation arrangements illustrated in sections 778.114 and 778.118, and the mere combination of these two permissible methods does not render the former inapplicable.”  While this decision reinforces employers’ wide latitude in implementing creative and multi-faceted compensation plans, creativity and discretion should not be interpreted as a substitute for overtime compliance.  In this case, the half-time overtime method under Section 778.114 was lawfully paired with the half-time overtime method under Section 778.118.  Employers seeking to implement other or more creative combinations should consult with experienced wage-hour counsel to ensure their pay plans are compliant.

 

As our readers know, the laws regarding how, and how much, employers must pay their employees are rapidly evolving. Against this backdrop, we are excited to announce Five on Friday, a new micro-blog series developed by Seyfarth’s Wage & Hour Litigation Practice Group.

Each installment in this weekly series will feature a skilled lawyer or expert who will answer five questions about the changing wage-and-hour landscape in an accessible format that is intended to inform, educate, and entertain readers who are on the front lines of compliance.

Please note that Five on Friday will be distributed to subscribers only. You can subscribe (free of charge, of course) by clicking below:

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