Authored by Alex Passantino

Seyfarth Synopsis: On July 26, 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor will publish its anticipated Request for Information on the White-Collar Overtime Exemption in the Federal Register. The RFI will give the regulated community 60 days to provide its comments in response.

The RFI seeks input on a wide variety of topics, many of which involve issues that have been raised since the Department published its final rule increasing the salary level over a year ago. With the salary level on hold, the Department has the opportunity to revisit the level–or at least to take the temperature of the regulated community.

The issues on which the Department seeks comment are:

  • Should the 2004 salary test be updated based on inflation? If so, which measure of inflation?
  • Would duties test changes be necessary if the increase was based on inflation?
  • Should there be multiple salary levels in the regulations? Would differences in salary level based on employer size or locality be useful and/or viable?
  • Should the Department return to its pre-2004 standard of having different salary levels based on whether the exemption asserted was the executive/administrative vs. the professional?
  • Is the appropriate salary level based on the pre-2004 short test, the pre-2004 long test, or something different? Regardless of answer, would changes to the duties test be necessary to properly “line up” the exemption with the salary level?
  • Was the salary level set in 2016 so high as to effectively supplant the duties test? At what level does that happen?
  • What was the impact of the 2016 rule? Did employers make changes in anticipation of the rule? Were there salary increases, hourly rate changes, reductions in schedule, changes in policy?  Did the injunction change that? Did employers revert back when the injunction was issued?
  • Would a duties-only test be preferable to the current model?
  • Were there specific industries/positions impacted? Which ones?
  • What about the 2016 provision that would permit up to 10% of the salary level to be satisfied with bonuses? Should the Department keep that? Is 10% the right amount?
  • Should the highly compensated employee exemption salary level be indexed/how? Should it differ based on locality/employer size?
  • Should the salary levels be automatically updated? If so, how?

Of course, the value of these responses ultimately is dependent on the Fifth Circuit’s decision on whether the salary test is permissible to begin with. Should the Fifth Circuit rule in the Department’s favor on that issue, the RFI responses will provide the Department with the information it needs to proceed on a new rulemaking adjusting the salary level…assuming the employer community responds.

For additional information on how to respond to the RFI, please contact OTRuleHelp@seyfarth.com or Alex Passantino at apassantino@seyfarth.com. We’ll continue to update you as additional information becomes available.

Authored by Alex Passantino

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Wage & Hour Division announced its regulatory plan for the next year and it is less ambitious than some may have anticipated.  A request for information on the overtime rule and a proposal to rescind a limited tip credit regulation are all that is on the immediate horizon for employers.

Each spring and fall, Washington waits with bated breath as the Executive Branch releases its regulatory agenda. As the first pronouncement of some of the specifics of the Trump Administration’s regulatory plans, this year’s agenda was anticipated more than most. And now we have it

The Wage and Hour Division’s initial plans include the announced Request for Information on the white collar exemptions, which is expected to be published this month. An as-of-yet-unannounced action, however, is a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that would rescind aspects of the Department’s 2011 rule related to tipped employees. Specifically, the NPRM would seek comment on the Department’s proposal to rescind the portion of the rule that restricts tip pooling for employers who do not use the tip credit to satisfy their minimum wage obligations. That rule has been the subject of much litigation, with mixed results. One of the cases may be on its way to the Supreme Court, with the Administration’s response to a cert petition due on September 8. With the NPRM slated for an August publication, it’s possible that the Administration may be seeking to avoid review by the Supreme Court on some of the touchier issues related to the proper deference a federal agency should be afforded. We’ll keep you posted.

Finally, WHD has identified a long-term plan to revisit the Section 14(c) program. Section 14(c) of the FLSA permits, under certain circumstances, employment of individuals with disabilities at subminimum wages. It is a politically sensitive program, and one in need of updating. No timetable has been provided for the Department’s review.

Co-authored by Robert J. Carty, Jr., John Phillips, and Alex Passantino

Seyfarth Synopsis: On June 30, the Department of Labor filed its reply brief to support its appeal from a preliminary injunction that enjoined the DOL from implementing its 2016 revisions to the salary-level tests for determining applicability of the FLSA’s executive, administrative, and professional exemptions. In its reply, the government argues it had the authority to make those revisions. How the Fifth Circuit handles the appeal, now that it is fully briefed, will affect what happens from here in the lower court in ways that are difficult to predict.

As we reported last week, the Department of Labor finally filed a reply brief in its appeal of the preliminary injunction prohibiting it from implementing or enforcing its 2016 “Final Rule”—that is, its revisions to the FLSA regulation governing the executive, administrative, and professional (“EAP”) exemptions.

Over the last few days, we’ve been fielding lots of questions about what might happen next. Let’s try to game it out.

But first, we should set the stage. The plaintiffs asserted three main challenges to the Final Rule:

  1. The plaintiffs contested the DOL’s very authority to implement the rule’s salary-level requirement in the first place. The district court accepted this argument—at least with respect to the 2016 Final Rule—and found it unlawful in its entirety.
  2. The plaintiffs argued that the Final Rule’s new “indexing” feature violates the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”) because it would automatically adjust the minimum salary requirements without any notice or comment period. The district court found the indexing feature unlawful, but only because it had already struck down the entire Final Rule; it expressly bypassed the APA arguments.
  3. The plaintiffs asserted a Tenth Amendment challenge claiming that the Final Rule cannot apply to state governments. The district court rejected this position.

On appeal, the DOL initially defended the Final Rule in all respects, including its $913 weekly minimum salary. Now working under the new administration, the DOL has narrowed its approach in its reply. Rather than continuing a full-throated defense of the previous administration’s Final Rule, the DOL has now limited its argument to one (and only one) issue; it also announced its intention to revisit the $913 minimum:

The Department has decided not to advocate for the specific salary level ($913 per week) set in the final rule at this time and intends to undertake further rulemaking to determine what the salary level should be. Accordingly, the Department requests that the Fifth Circuit address only the threshold legal question of the DOL’s statutory authority to set a salary level, without addressing the specific salary level set by the 2016 final rule.

This is definitely a plot twist, and our readers understandably want to know how it might affect the outcome of this appeal.

We won’t try to predict how the Fifth Circuit will rule on the basic “authority” question. But if it agrees with the district court’s reasoning, the path forward is clear: It will affirm, and the DOL may seek rehearing and/or Supreme Court review if it believes it necessary to preserve its long-asserted authority to set a salary level.

Things will get much more complicated if the Fifth Circuit overrules the district court and finds that the DOL acted within its authority. Here are a few thoughts on what might happen in that case:

  • On the current record, it is unlikely that the court would reach the plaintiffs’ APA challenge to the new “indexing” feature, since the parties’ appellate briefs expressly avoided that issue. That said, the court could request additional briefing on the issue, or could remand the case and instruct the district court to perform an APA analysis.
  • This raises the possibility that the court could find a middle ground. That is, it could find that the DOL generally has the authority to impose a salary-level test, but that the Final Rule exceeded that authority. In that case, the court would affirm the result while disagreeing with the district court’s reasoning.
  • The court might also consider the plaintiffs’ alternative argument that the Final Rule cannot apply to state governments under the Tenth Amendment. A victory on this point, though, would apply only to the 21 State Attorneys General plaintiffs, not the other plaintiffs (a coalition of non-governmental business groups) whose case has been intermingled with that filed by the Attorneys General.
  • If the Fifth Circuit sides with the DOL on all issues, it will reverse. The question will then become whether any of the plaintiffs’ claims can survive in the wake of whatever legal conclusions the court reaches. Various stakeholders have asked us whether the Fifth Circuit would render a defense judgment if it sides entirely with DOL. We wouldn’t expect such an outcome here, because this appeal involves a preliminary injunction, and certain issues are likely to remain (thus requiring further action by the district court). For example, one of the issues raised below (but not in the appeal) is whether the Final Rule is arbitrary and capricious; the Fifth Circuit’s ruling may not resolve that question. (The business plaintiffs have raised the issue in a motion for summary judgment, which is pending in the district court.)
  • We should also note that the Texas AFL-CIO has filed a motion to intervene, which has yet to be decided. The union wants to more strenuously defend the Final Rule than it believes the Trump Administration will. This may present additional loose ends that will have to be resolved in a remand

As we ponder the possible scenarios, we should also consider a few wildcards:

  • In its reply, the DOL expresses its intention to revisit the Final Rule in a new rulemaking. Indeed, as we reported last month, the agency has announced a plan to issue a Request for Information—a “pre-rulemaking”—related to the EAP exemption. There are no guarantees on what the DOL would do with the information it receives. It might help DOL defend its authority to set a salary level; it may also help DOL develop the basis for a future rulemaking. Depending on what the DOL does, it is possible that the case could become moot altogether—for example, if it proposes and finalizes a new rule before the case concludes.
  • The Fifth Circuit may conduct oral argument and/or request additional briefing. If it does, expect us to refine our views based on what unfolds.
  • The plaintiffs could seek to file a surreply in light of the DOL’s new, more limited position. Such a brief, if filed, might be instructive.
  • A settlement may be possible. It is unclear, however, where the plaintiffs come down on the “no authority” argument versus the argument that DOL exceeded its authority in 2016. This would be a critical sticking point in any negotiated resolution.

As we try to read these tea leaves, we hasten to repeat what we said last week: “What is certain at this time is that the future of the 2016 revisions remains uncertain.” Rest assured, we’ll be watching this appeal closely. As more information comes in, we’ll continue to post updates here. Stay tuned.

Co-authored by Brett Bartlett, Alex Passantino, and Kevin Young

At last, the federal government has filed its reply brief in the Fifth Circuit concerning its appeal from a Texas district court’s order preliminarily enjoining the 2016 revisions to the FLSA’s executive, administrative, and professional exemptions. Because of the substantive and procedural complexities facing the Department of Labor (and its newly seated Secretary, Alex Acosta), we would not have been surprised to see another request for more time to file this reply—though given the number of prior extensions, there was reason to wonder whether the Fifth Circuit would grant such a request.

The complexities, in a nutshell, revolved around several points:

  1. The fact that the lower court that issued the preliminary injunction justified its order, in part, with reasoning that would suggest that the DOL does not have and has never had the authority to set a salary level test for the EAP exemptions.
  2. Although the new Secretary of Labor and the Trump administration might not want the 2016 revisions to become effective with the $913/week salary level requirement, it would be difficult to argue against the revisions without supporting the lower court’s rescission of DOL rulemaking authority.
  3. If the DOL argued against the preliminary injunction (i.e., for its reversal), the Fifth Circuit might order that the 2016 revisions become effective, whether retrospectively or at some point in the future, in connection with a holding that the district court’s order was entirely unsalvageable.

Tough stuff. And we now know the DOL made a hard choice. The Department chose to argue that it absolutely has, and always has had, the authority to set a salary level test—it chose to argue that the lower court erred in enjoining the revised exemptions from going into effect.

The DOL’s argument is more nuanced than that, however. In the simplest of terms, it attempts to walk a tight line by urging the Fifth Circuit to find that the lower court erred by concluding that the DOL did not have the authority to set a salary level test at all, but to stop short of finding that the 2016 revisions are valid as written. Somewhat subtly, the DOL suggests that the appellate court should bless the Department’s ability to reconsider what the appropriate salary level should be. Here is what the DOL writes about that:

The district court did not determine whether the salary level set by the 2016 final rule is arbitrary and capricious or unsupported by the administrative record. Because the preliminary injunction rested on the legal conclusion that the Department lacks authority to set a salary level, it may be reversed on the ground that that legal ruling was erroneous. The Department has decided not to advocate for the specific salary level ($913 per week) set in the final rule at this time and intends to undertake further rulemaking to determine what the salary level should be. Accordingly, the Department requests that this Court address only the threshold legal question of the Department’s statutory authority to set a salary level, without addressing the specific salary level set by the 2016 final rule. In light of this litigation contesting the Department’s authority to establish any salary level test, the Department has decided not to proceed immediately with issuance of a notice of proposed rulemaking to address the appropriate salary level. The rulemaking process imposes significant burdens on both the promulgating agency and the public, and the Department is reluctant to issue a proposal predicated on its authority to establish a salary level test while this litigation remains pending. Instead, the Department soon will publish a request for information seeking public input on several questions that will aid in the development of a proposal.

So where does this leave us? It is hard to predict what the Fifth Circuit will do with these arguments. The appellate court might hold oral argument. It doesn’t have to. We do not know, at this time, who the judges would be to hear the appeal. We cannot read the tea leaves based on the personal tendencies of the jurists, as a result. The court might find that the parties have provided sufficient information to allow an order based on the briefing alone. Even if it were to do that, we’d be looking at months, most likely, before we see a ruling.

And what then? The appeals court might find, as noted above, that the lower court’s order cannot stand in any way. That would create a chain of events that we all would hope to avoid. The court might, however, do as the DOL asks, reversing the preliminary injunction and giving instructions to the trial court about how to proceed. Perhaps that would open the door to some sort of compromise, which would bring its own complexities and challenges.

What is certain at this time is that the future of the 2016 revisions remains uncertain.

We will continue to monitor the situation.

Authored by Alex Passantino

In the second bit of wage hour news today, and in advance of Secretary Acosta’s hearing before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, the Department of Labor announced the return of opinion letters. In 2010, the Obama Administration had eliminated the long-standing practice of issuing opinion letters in favor of Administrator Interpretations.

The Department’s announcement allows the regulated community to request formal guidance from the Wage & Hour Division on issues under its jurisdiction (e.g., FLSA, FMLA, Davis-Bacon, SCA). In some circumstances, an opinion letter may operate to bar or limit an employer’s liability for a wage-and-hour-related practice.

The Department has created a web page for the opinion letter process, containing guidance on items such as how to make a request. Not surprisingly, the Department states that it “will exercise discretion in determining which requests for opinion letters will be responded to, and the appropriate form of guidance to be issued.” Opinion letters are labor-intensive, and not every request will result in a response. As a result, employers should carefully consider the issues they believe will result in the greatest impact and make their request accordingly.

Opportunity AheadAuthored by Alex Passantino

During his Wednesday hearing before a House Appropriations Subcommittee, in which he addressed the Trump Administration’s proposed budget for DOL, Secretary Alexander Acosta informed the committee that the Department planned to issue a Request for Information (RFI) regarding the currently enjoined overtime rules. The anticipated timetable is 2-3 weeks, but it is unclear whether that represents the timetable before the RFI is submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for review and approval or actual publication.

An RFI is a “pre-rulemaking” procedure during which an administrative agency, such as DOL, asks the regulated community for input on a topic or topics. For example, in 2006, the Wage and Hour Division published an RFI on the Family and Medical Leave Act. The results of the employer and employee responses were published in a report in 2007. The responses also were used to inform the Department’s proposed regulation in 2008, which became effective in 2009.

An RFI on the overtime rule likely would ask questions about the economic (or anticipated) impact of the Department’s increase to the minimum salary level required for exemption. Although it undoubtedly will solicit input from all affected employers and employees, it may ask specific questions about the rule’s impact on not-for profits, state and local governments, and small businesses (or at least the impact it was expected to have). The responses to the Department’s RFI will provide it with real-world data points regarding the actual impact of the rule, which will allow it to better determine how to proceed—in the pending litigation as well as in any rulemaking efforts.

It will, therefore, be critical for employer voices to be heard. We will provide additional information on the RFI—including how best to respond—as it becomes available.

Authored by Alex Passantino

On June 7, Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta announced the withdrawal of the DOLs 2015 and 2016 Administrator Interpretations (AIs) on joint employment and independent contractors. These documents were statements of the Wage & Hour Division’s interpretations of the FLSAs (and Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act’s) definitions of employ, employer, and employee. The withdrawal does not change the law; it simply removes as the DOLs position those statements made in the AIs.

The withdrawal likely indicates a changing focus in the Department’s enforcement efforts away from the “fissured” industry initiative of the Obama Administration. We may get additional insight when Secretary Acosta testifies before the House Labor appropriations subcommittee to discuss the Trump Administration budget.

Authored by Sheryl Skibbe

On Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the Justice Department’s additional unopposed request for a 60-day extension to figure out its position on the new FLSA overtime exemption rules.

The stated reason for the government’s unopposed request was to “allow incoming leadership personnel adequate time to consider the issues.” Nevada v. DOL, No. 16-41606, Motion For Extension to File Reply (Feb. 17, 2017).

Presumably, the request for additional time is to permit the Senate to confirm the Trump administration’s new Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta, and let him weigh in on the new rules. But the extension runs only to May 1, and it is not clear that the Senate could confirm Mr. Acosta and permit him to guide the government’s position by this new deadline.

Meanwhile, the district court in Texas is still considering the business groups’ motion for summary judgment to permanently invalidate the new rules and the Texas AFL-CIO’s motion to intervene in the case. A decision granting the summary judgment motion could moot the appeal if the district court enters a permanent injunction before the Fifth Circuit rules.

Authored by Alex Passantino

Seyfarth Synopsis: Two lawsuits related to the Department of Labor’s revisions to the white-collar exemptions have been filed in East Texas.

The first lawsuit, citing (among other things) the severe impact the impending salary increase will have on state and local government budgets, was filed by the Attorneys General of Nevada, Texas, and 19 other states (the “State AG case”). The State AG case makes a Tenth Amendment-based challenge to Congressional application of the FLSA to states. It also argues that the DOL exceeded Congressional authority with respect to the salary test, the highly-compensated employee exemption level, and indexing. The State AG case also argues that the DOL failed to follow the Administrative Procedure Act and/or that the Department exceeded its Congressional delegation of authority.

The second lawsuit was filed by a broad coalition of Texas and national business groups and trade associations. This case alleges that the DOL exceeded its statutory authority under the FLSA, both by the dramatic increase in the minimum salary level required for exemption and by the provision that would require automatic updating of that level every three years.

Both cases seek a variety of declarations regarding the unlawfulness of the DOL’s actions, as well as temporary and permanent injunctive relief preventing the rule from becoming effective on December 1, 2016.

The filing of these cases, as well as recent efforts in Congress to stop the rule (or at least to revise it), may tempt some employers into taking their foot off the pedal with respect to ensuring compliance with the new salary level by December 1. As many have learned the hard way, however, legislation and litigation are less-than-certain solutions.

Employers should continue their efforts to be compliant by December 1. If we receive legislative or judicial relief at some point, it will be much easier to stop the process than it would be to start it much closer to the effective date. In other words, Congressional or judicial relief should not be your compliance strategy.

We will, of course, continue to keep you updated on the litigation and legislative efforts. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the December 1 deadline.

Authored by Alex Passantino

Seyfarth Synopsis:  WHD is seeking to enter into compliance agreements with, among others, franchisors.  Whether an employer should take WHD up on their offer to sign on the line depends on a variety of considerations.

Expanding upon a relationship started in 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division and Subway announced a voluntary compliance agreement earlier this week. Billed as an effort at increasing Subway’s social responsibility, the agreement details the steps WHD and Subway have decided will be mutually beneficial, including the following:

  • WHD will develop, with Subway’s assistance, compliance assistance materials for the franchise restaurant industry, which Subway will distribute to, among others, its managers and franchisees.
  • WHD will assist Subway in understanding the enforcement data related to its franchisees.
  • Subway will provide WHD with its annual disclosures to other government agencies, including the FTC.
  • Subway and WHD will explore options for franchisee compliance, including building alerts into the payroll and scheduling platform that Subway offers its franchisees.
  • WHD and Subway will meet quarterly to discuss franchisee compliance.
  • Subway may advise its franchisees of their obligations to comply with WHD’s investigative process.

In press releases and media statements accompanying the announcement, WHD Administrator David Weil revealed that WHD attempted to enter into similar agreements with other franchisors, and will seek to do the same in the future.

Should a franchisor—or any employer for that matter—enter into a voluntary compliance agreement with WHD? Ultimately, the answer to that question depends on a number of factors, and different employers likely will reach different conclusions. A couple of things to consider include:

Wage and hour compliance history. If the employer and its franchisees have had a solid compliance history—considering both WHD investigations and private lawsuits—there may be no need to invite WHD into the fold. If, on the other hand, there have been significant violation—particularly violations that have been publicly reported, it may be worth exploring. Media outlets reported that Subway’s franchisees had been investigated around 800 times in a three-year period, resulting in back wages of approximately $2 million. That type of negative publicity for the brand may have prompted the desire to reach an agreement to make every effort to ensure the brand and demonstrate “social responsibility.”

Joint employment. Entering into an agreement with WHD in which a franchisor takes additional responsibility for wage and hour compliance has the potential to be fraught with peril when it comes to joint employment. Although both Subway and WHD seem to insist that the agreement does nothing to shift the balance in any joint employment inquiry, whether it be under the FLSA, the NLRA, or any other law, it’s hard to see how the compliance agreement will not be used by parties seeking to establish joint employment. Indeed, another government agency (such as the NLRB) or a private plaintiff’s attorney is completely free to ignore WHD’s understanding of an agreement’s impact on joint employment.

Though it may be true in many cases that the agreement itself makes no changes to the analysis, in others it very well may. Presumably, entities at either end of the spectrum of concern—either those employers who are totally confident there will be no joint employment finding or those employers who believe the “cake is baked” on the issue—will be more likely to enter into an agreement. Those who are somewhere in the middle may be rightfully concerned that the agreement may be used against them to prove joint employment; at the very least, it will be one more item that needs to be explained away.

Other Benefits. It’s also possible that an employer’s participation in a voluntary compliance agreement with WHD can be used to help establish a good faith defense to liquidated damages, or to help oppose a plaintiff’s attempt to establish willfulness and a third year of damages. These efforts will necessarily be dependent on the nature of any alleged violation and its relationship to the agreement, but it would be difficult to paint an employer who meets with WHD regularly to discuss compliance, and who engages in the types of training activities contemplated by the agreement, as being reckless or indifferent to its obligations under the FLSA.

The decision to enter into a voluntary compliance agreement with WHD if presented with the opportunity—or to reach out directly to WHD to get the process started—is one that should be carefully and thoughtfully considered. It remains to be seen whether the Subway agreement will be the beginning of a trend or an isolated example of an employer willing to go where others are not. As additional agreements are announced and publicized, we will, of course, keep you posted.