Authored by Gena Usenheimer

How much deference should courts give to interpretive guidance from the New York State DOL? At least for now, the answer remains unclear.

In February 2014, we reported on the Second Circuit’s request for direction from the New York Court of Appeals as to two questions arising out of Ramos v. Simplex Grinnell, LP, a prevailing wage litigation.

The first question was how much deference a court should give to an opinion letter issued by the state DOL. The letter at issue interpreted New York’s prevailing wage statute, but stated that the interpretation would apply prospectively only. On Friday, the Court of Appeals gave a non-answer, adopting the DOL’s position as to the amount of deference to which its opinion letter is entitled—none. The court held: “[W]e will not give the agency more deference than it claims for itself.” What’s clear, then, is that when the DOL takes the position that its guidance is not entitled to judicial deference, courts should agree.

The court did answer the second question certified by the Second Circuit: whether an agreement to comply with a statute binds a company to comply with the statute as it is understood at the time of the agreement or how the statute may ultimately be interpreted. Not surprisingly, the court held that an agreement to comply with a statute is an agreement to comply with the statute as it is correctly interpreted, regardless of whether that interpretation was known to the parties at the time of their agreement.