Misclassification/Exemptions

Authored by Robert Whitman

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Second Circuit has upheld summary judgment against magazine interns seeking payment as “employees” under the FLSA.

In an end-of-semester decision that may represent the final grade for unpaid interns seeking minimum wage and overtime pay under the FLSA, the Second Circuit has firmly rejected claims by Hearst magazine interns challenging their unpaid status.

The interns served on an unpaid basis for various magazines published by Hearst Corporation, either during college or for a few months between college and graduate school. They sued, claiming they were employees because they provided work of value to Hearst and received little professional benefit in return.

Following discovery, District Judge J. Paul Oetken rejected the interns’ claim of employee status and granted summary judgment to Hearst. On appeal, the Second Circuit framed the question succinctly: “whether Hearst furnishes bona fide for‐credit internships or whether it exploits student‐interns to avoid hiring and compensating entry‐level employees.” If the former were true, the interns would be deemed trainees, who could permissibly be unpaid; if the latter were true, the interns would be entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay.

In support of their appeal, the interns argued that many of the tasks they performed were “menial and repetitive,” that they received “little formal training,” and that they “mastered their tasks within a couple weeks, but did the same work for the duration of the internship.” These points, they contended, outweighed their receipt of college credit and other indicia of an academic flavor to their experience.

The appeals court, in Wang v. Hearst Corp., appeared to have little trouble upholding the grant of summary judgment in favor of Hearst. Applying its test for assessing whether interns are employees or trainees, the court held that the factual record favored non-employee status on six of the seven pertinent factors, enough to sustain the judgment in the company’s favor.

Those seven factors, as loyal blog readers will recall from prior posts, first appeared in the court’s 2016 decision in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight, in which the court held that the “primary beneficiary” test governed whether interns were considered employees or trainees. The Glatt court rejected the Department of Labor’s multi-factor test and devised its own:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa;
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands‐on training provided by educational institutions;
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the internʹs formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit;
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the internʹs academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar;
  5. The extent to which the internshipʹs duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning;
  6. The extent to which the internʹs work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern;
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

The factors are non-exhaustive, and as the Second Circuit reiterated in the current case, need not all point in the same direction to support a conclusion of non-employee status.

The “heart of the dispute on appeal” was factor two — whether the interns received “training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment.” The plaintiffs argued that, in order for this factor to weigh in favor of non-employee status, the internships would have to provide “education that resembles university pedagogy to the exclusion of tasks that apply specific skills to the professional environment.”

The court was not convinced. It recognized that the Hearst internships varied in many respects from classroom learning. But as it had said earlier in Glatt, this was precisely the point. “The [plaintiffs’] tacit assumption is that professions, trades, and arts are or should be just like school; but many useful internships are designed to correct that impression…. [P]ractical skill may entail practice, and an intern gains familiarity with an industry by day to day professional experience.”

Perhaps the most significant part of the ruling comes at the end, where the court discusses the propriety of summary judgment. The interns, and various amici curiae (unions, advocacy groups, and professors) who advocated on their behalf, argued strenuously that various “mixed inferences” on the seven internship factors precluded a grant of summary judgment. While acknowledging that application of the factors required some weighing of evidence, the court nonetheless said this did not mean the case required a trial.

“Status as an ‘employee’ for the purposes of the FLSA is a matter of law,” the court said, “and under our summary judgment standard, a district court can strike a balance on the totality of the circumstances to rule for one side or the other.” It continued: “Many of our FLSA tests that are fact‐sensitive and require the judge to assign weight are routinely disposed of on summary judgment [citing cases]. The amici contend that summary judgment is inapposite in all unpaid intern cases that turn on competing factors. Such a rule would foreclose weighing of undisputed facts in this commonplace fashion.”

In many ways, the Wang decision may be the epilogue to a textbook that has already been written. After the Glatt decision in 2016, the number of lawsuits filed by interns seeking unpaid compensation dropped precipitously. That may have been due to Glatt’s highly-employer-friendly resolution, both as to the merits of the employee-or-intern question and its pronouncements on the high threshold for collective/class certification on the question. Or perhaps it was due to the decisions by employers, reacting to the onslaught of intern lawsuits seeking pay under the FLSA and state law, to curtail or limit their internship programs or to pay interns compensation at or above minimum wage. Whatever the reason, the Wang decision cannot be heartening for plaintiffs’ lawyers, and the days of widespread lawsuits by interns are likely over.

Still, companies who remain interested in sponsoring unpaid interns should not get complacent. Paying minimum wage, of course, remains a fail proof antidote to the possibility of FLSA claims by these individuals. But if that is not an option, companies should take care to ensure that their programs have primarily educational aims and coordinate wherever possible with the interns’ educational institutions to ensure they meet the factors articulated by the court. Otherwise, the interns may be the ones teaching them a lesson.

Co-authored by Cheryl Luce, Kyla Miller, and Noah Finkel

Seyfarth Synopsis: A recent decision highlights why the FLSA is not always the remedial statute created to protect low-income workers by holding that four commission-based sales representatives, each earning six figures, were not exempt from the overtime requirements because they were not paid on a salary basis.

Our readers are well aware that under the FLSA, employers are required to pay employees overtime equal to time and one-half the regular rate for all hours worked over 40 hours in a workweek unless an exemption applies. When making exempt classification decisions, the focus tends to be on whether employees are doing the kind of work that would satisfy the applicable duties test and whether employees are making enough to satisfy the income thresholds. But the FLSA exemptions don’t concern only how much employees are paid, but also how they are paid. Though sometimes overlooked, technical requirements about how employees are paid can carry the day in a misclassification lawsuit, leaving a trail of decisions that often seem contrary to the purpose set out by the creators of the FLSA. This was one such decision.

This decision illustrates how the FLSA often is applied in a way that is a far cry from what it was originally intended to be: an Act passed during the Great Depression to ensure a living wage for working Americans. In this case, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that four highly compensated sales representatives, who were paid on a commission basis, were not exempt from FLSA’s overtime provisions despite the fact that the plaintiffs each earned well over $100,000 per year. In fact, one sales representative topped out at over $900,000 per year. Across the relevant period, the plaintiffs’ compensation averaged about $470,00 per year.

The defendants argued that the plaintiffs were exempt from overtime wages under the highly compensated employee exception. Under this exemption, the employee must perform office or non-manual work and be paid a total annual compensation of $100,000 or more (which must include at least $455 per week paid on a salary or fee basis) and must customarily and regularly perform at least one of the duties of an exempt executive, administrative or professional employee. The defendants argued that even though the plaintiffs were paid by commissions on sales, the highly compensated employee exemption applies because the commissions are “fees,” so they were paid on a fee basis. The plaintiffs argued that the highly compensated employee exemption applies only when employees are paid on a salary basis and that the commissions they received were not “fees.” The court agreed with the plaintiffs, holding that the plaintiffs’ compensation did not meet the highly compensated employee exemption’s salary basis test.

We previously have discussed courts’ construction of the FLSA as “remedial and humanitarian in purpose and must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.” We have argued that courts apply this construction inconsistently and often illogically. And this case serves as one more challenge to the unsupported dicta that we find in many cases stating that, because the FLSA is “remedial and humanitarian,” its exemptions must be “narrowly construed.” Here, we have employees who are very high earners, with two employees making close to one million dollars in a single year, and whose employer is now forced to pay them additional compensation and liquidated damages (and a fee petition for their lawyers is sure to come next). The court construed the FLSA exemptions against these employees narrowly, and we can discern no remedial or humanitarian purpose that the FLSA is serving here. Rather, this decision reflects the FLSA as a statue riddled with technical traps and rigid rules that do not necessarily serve to ensure a living wage for working Americans.

Co-authored by John Giovannone, Noah Finkel, and Kyle Petersen

Seyfarth Synopsis: As previously discussed in this space, the Ninth Circuit recently chose to side with the Second Circuit, and not the Sixth Circuit, and ruled that mortgage underwriters fail to meet the FLSA’s administrative exemption from overtime test. In doing so, the Court artificially promoted and expanded a court-created paradigm for assessing job duties—known as the “administrative/production” dichotomy—far beyond its utility, and thereby increased confusion in the mortgage banking industry.  Fortunately, the Supreme Court now has the opportunity to remedy that confusion with the pending petition for writ of certiorari.

As our readers may recall, we took issue with the Ninth Circuit’s July decision in McKeen-Chaplin v. Provident Bank, which held that mortgage underwriters did not qualify for the administrative exemption from overtime under the FLSA, despite their critical role in assessing potential mortgage loans and making important decisions based on those assessments. As we discussed, the decision was the result of a concerted effort to narrowly construe the exemption through a strained application of the outdated “administrative-production dichotomy,” which is a judicially-created shorthand tool that some courts use to shove job duties into one of two artificial buckets. And, as we discussed, the decision demonstrates yet another example of oft-repeated but unsupported, illogical, and inconsistent dicta advocating that while the FLSA, in general, should be broadly construed, its provisions concerning exemptions should be construed narrowly.

Suffice it to say, we are not only concerned that McKeen-Chaplin v. Provident Bank decision is substantively wrong, but that it will lead to less certainty and a spike in misapplication of the administrative exemption test under the FLSA (a fact we discussed further, in the context of the strain the decision creates between the federal and state law).

Fortunately, Provident Bank shares our concerns and has petitioned the United States Supreme for review of the decision (and in fact, cited our blog in the process). The petition rightly and persuasively argues that the decision is important, was wrongly decided, and creates a Circuit split between the Ninth, Second, and Sixth Circuits: “The issue impacts thousands of banks, and tens of thousands of employees nationwide…. Underwriters assess the potential borrowers income, assets, and credit history and decide whether their respective institutions should risk their own financial capital by making the loan. [T]hey play a crucial role in managing their institution’s overall exposure to risk and promoting its overall financial success.” As the petition persuasively points out, when the Department of Labor “promulgated the relevant regulations [concerning the administrative exemption] in 2004, it [also] issued a regulatory impact notice making clear its view that ‘underwriters’ do generally qualify as exempt ‘administrative’ employees.”

Thus, decisions like McKeen-Chaplin v. Provident Bank constitute judicial legislation concerning the ever-shifting contours of the exemption, which has morphed out of the court-created administrative-production dichotomy and an overriding but unfounded desire to narrowly construe the exemption. But such judicial legislation does not align with the original expectations of the drafters for the scope and impact of the exemption regulations. Yet, by way of Provident Bank’s cert petition, the Supreme Court now has the opportunity to right that wrong and definitively bring mortgage underwriters back within the scope of the administrative exemption, as originally envisioned. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will accept Provident Bank’s invitation.

 

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

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Thursday afternoon, a federal judge in Texas issued an order officially invalidating the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2016 overtime rule, which would have more than doubled the minimum salary level for most overtime-exempt employees. While the long awaited ruling brings a measure of closure for employers, the possibility of appeal, as well as the new administration’s efforts to revise the existing overtime exemption rules, will be critical issues for employers watch in the weeks and months to come.

For nearly a year, employers have been watching and waiting as litigation challenging the Obama administration’s revision to the FLSA’s executive, administrative, and professional (“EAP”) exemptions—a revision intended to make millions of more Americans eligible for overtime pay—wound its way through litigation in the Eastern District of Texas and the Fifth Circuit of Appeals. As of Thursday afternoon, the waiting is over: District Judge Amos Mazzant issued an order invalidating the revised rule.

The Obama DOL’s revised rule, which was finalized in the summer of 2016 and slated to take effect on December 1, 2016, would have increased the salary level required for EAP employees from $455 per week (i.e., $23,660 per year) to $913 per week (i.e., $47,476 per year). The rule also called for automatic, inflation-indexed updates to the salary level every three years. Ultimately, the revised rule did not become effective on December 1, however, because Judge Mazzant issued an order days prior that preliminarily enjoined it from going into effect.

District Judge Mazzant issued his order in two consolidated lawsuits challenging the DOL for acting beyond its rulemaking authority. The order was the result of a motion filed by a group of state attorneys general who argued that the DOL’s rulemaking was invalid, in part because it exceeded the authority Congress gave DOL to define who is a “bona fide” EAP employee who should not be entitled to overtime pay. At about the same time that the “state plaintiffs” filed their motion for preliminary injunction, which the district court granted, another set of plaintiffs—a group of business associations (“business plaintiffs”)—filed an expedited motion for summary judgment, advancing similar arguments that the DOL’s rulemaking was unlawful.

After Judge Mazzant granted the state plaintiffs’ preliminary injunction motion, the Obama DOL filed an interlocutory appeal in the Fifth Circuit attacking the injunction order. Importantly, however, this was just before the Trump Administration took office. Ultimately, briefing in the appeal was delayed as a new president settled into office and his new Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta, took the helm at DOL. In doing so, Secretary Acosta and his Acting Solicitor were required to assess how to maneuver a proceeding involving an injunction order that on the one hand blocked the implementation of an overtime rule championed by the prior administration, but on the other hand suggested that the DOL might not have authority to set any salary level for the EAP exemptions, despite having done so for nearly eighty years.

In the meantime, the business plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment lingered before the district court.

Thursday’s ruling was preceded by a recent flurry of activity. On Wednesday, for example, Judge Mazzant issued an order confirming no further argument was necessary on the summary judgment motion. The court also collapsed the state plaintiffs’ and business plaintiffs’ cases together and joined the state plaintiffs to the business plaintiffs’ pending summary judgment motion. Nevertheless, it seemed unlikely that Judge Mazzant would rule on the summary judgment motion before hearing from the Fifth Circuit regarding his earlier preliminary injunction order. After all, an appellate ruling on whether it was proper to preliminarily enjoin the new rule certainly could have impacted or at least informed Judge Mazzant’s reasoning on whether the rule should be declared invalid, as the summary judgment motion argued it should.

Meanwhile, at the Fifth Circuit, oral argument was slated for October 3, and the parties were jockeying for an opportunity to be heard. The business plaintiffs, who were not parties to the appeal, requested permission to appear as amici at the oral argument. Soon thereafter, all parties filed a motion to stay proceedings while they attempted to negotiate a deal that would eliminate the need for further proceedings. Indeed, even on Thursday as the district court was issuing its final judgment, the parties on appeal were filing various submissions with the Fifth Circuit.

So perhaps all were surprised when District Judge Mazzant issued orders finding that the DOL’s 2016 rulemaking was invalid, and that the AFL-CIO would not be joined to the case. The district court’s ruling on both of these issues is fairly straightforward. On the motion for summary judgment, which collapsed all parties and remaining issues into its walls, the court ruled as follows:

  • As associations and similar groups, the business plaintiffs had standing to challenge the DOL’s rulemaking.
  • The FLSA does in fact apply to state governments, contrary to the state plaintiffs’ arguments.
  • Applying Chevron deference analysis, the DOL exceeded its authority by setting a salary level test that in effect eliminated the need to consider whether employees performed duties that demonstrate their roles working in a bona fide EAP capacity, based on definitions that Congress would have understood at the time it enacted the FLSA.
  • The automatic updating provided by the DOL’s final 2016 rule was unlawful for similar reasons.
  • Clarifying an area of concern for the DOL and other stakeholders, the court did not rule on the question of whether the DOL has authority to set any salary level for the EAP exemptions. The court’s ruling concerned only the 2016 rulemaking, finding the heightened salary level under the revised rule goes too far.

In denying the AFL-CIO’s motion to intervene as a necessary or permissive party, the court reasoned:

  • The union’s motion was untimely, as it had been aware of the litigation and the issues on which it bore. Yet it waited to file its motion to intervene until material events had occurred in the litigation.
  • The union failed to show that the DOL and related defendants were not adequately representing the interests that it purported to protect.
  • The union had argued among its primary points that Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder would not protect those interests; but Alexander Acosta was confirmed as Secretary of Labor, meaning that Mr. Puzder’s potential actions never became a reality.
  • And the court would nevertheless not exercise its discretion to allow the union to join the case.

The question on everyone’s mind is: where does this leave us?

One easy answer is that with respect to the EAP exemption itself, the 2004 rule remains in place. Employees making $455 per week (i.e., $23,660 per year) and whose primary duty satisfies one of the EAP duties tests may be classified as exempt.

Beyond that, there are no easy answers. The parties are no doubt considering whether the district court’s summary judgment order, which purports to withdraw all prior rulings, renders the pending appeal moot or requires its dismissal. After all, the summary judgment motion decided by the district court presents largely the same issues currently before the Fifth Circuit—namely, the validity of the new overtime rule. Some commentators have already exclaimed that the district court’s order mooted the interlocutory appeal entirely. Our view is that the question could be more complicated. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to digest.

Either way, it also remains unclear whether either side will appeal Thursday’s rulings. While one would assume that DOL will not, we can’t slam the door on the possibility. As we saw with the appeal of the preliminary injunction, even the new Administration’s policy differences may not override DOL’s desire to defend itself against court orders limiting its authority, as the preliminary injunction did and as the court’s summary judgment order appears to do. If DOL determines that there is an institutional need to preserve its rulemaking authority, then it is possible we might see a DOL-initiated appeal, which would further complicate the question of how the union might agitate the proceedings.

As for the AFL-CIO, next steps are even foggier at this moment. Given that the DOL has already signaled the commencement of new rulemaking on the EAP exemptions, the AFL-CIO may take the view that even a complete victory on appeal—i.e., one that would permit its inclusion in the case and the reversal of the district court’s summary judgment decision—would ring hollow, as it could be undone by the DOL’s efforts to formulate a new rule that would take the place of the Obama rule.

Without question, the Eastern District of Texas’s order invalidating the 2016 overtime rule brings a large measure of closure for employers waiting to learn whether the rule would ever go into effect. The completeness and finality of that closure will depend largely on whether the AFL-CIO seeks appeal, as well as the DOL’s anticipated efforts to implement a new rule altogether. We will, of course, continue to monitor and update you on these important events.

Co-authored by Kyle Petersen, John Giovannone, and Noah Finkel

Seyfarth Synopsis: By resurrecting reliance on the administrative/production dichotomy in FLSA administrative exemption cases, the Ninth Circuit is at odds with the California Supreme Court’s application of the state’s administrative exemption. California employers thus find themselves in a strange new world where the state construct is easier to understand and perhaps even provides a more favorable environment for California employers, particularly those with a service-oriented workforce.

Readers of the blog know that the Ninth Circuit recently exalted the status of the administrative/production dichotomy as an analytical tool for assessing whether employees satisfy the FLSA’s administrative exemption test. In doing so, the Ninth Circuit has created a peculiar situation in which California employees may satisfy the state’s administrative exemption—which the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement says “shall be construed in the same manner as … under the Fair Labor Standards Act”—but be found nonexempt under the FLSA. Strange days indeed.

As we recently discussed, in McKeen-Chaplin v. Provident Bank, the Ninth Circuit applied the administrative/production dichotomy to invalidate the bank’s determination of exempt status. In doing so, the court stretched the definition of production work to encompass anyone whose job is “not so distinct from production” and concluded that the salient “question is not whether an employee is essential to the business, but rather whether her primary duty goes to the heart of internal administration—rather than marketplace offerings.”

In addition to setting up a circuit split begging for Supreme Court clarification, Provident Bank also stands in contrast to the California Supreme Court’s unanimous 2011 decision in Harris v. Superior Court and creates an intrastate conflict for California employers.

In Harris, the California Supreme Court considered the exempt status of insurance claim adjusters and, to the delight of many an employer, downplayed the administrative/production dichotomy as an analytical tool. Taking a more enlightened view, the Harris Court acknowledged that the dichotomy was outdated and not particularly useful in the context of a modern-day, post-industrial, service-oriented workplace. The case was ultimately remanded to the trial court for further proceedings in which the exempt status of the claims adjuster role was assessed in the context of the statutory language and appropriate federal regulations and with an understanding that “the [administrative/production] dichotomy is a judicially created creature of the common law which has been effectively superseded in this context by the more specific and detailed statutory and regulatory enactments.”

And while Harris left open the possibility that the administrative/production dichotomy could have some limited utility in the certain circumstances, Harris emphasized the dichotomy is “not a dispositive test” and should only be considered after the language of the statutes and regulations are assessed and compared to the specific duties and responsibilities at issue. But any state-gained peace of mind from Harris’s deemphasizing of the administrative/production dichotomy now appears short-lived as it stands in stark contrast to the murky federal fortification of the dichotomy in Provident. California employers now find themselves in a curious and frustrating position with no clear guidance on how to reconcile the divergent views of the state and federal courts.

Co-authored by Noah Finkel, Colton Long, Kyle Petersen, and John Giovannone

Seyfarth Synopsis:  FLSA cases holding against employers typically invoke a canon of construction that the FLSA should be construed broadly, and any of its exemptions narrowly. But a study of the roots of this language shows that the canon has a dubious foundation and that it tends to be applied inconsistently to justify a result.

As our readers saw earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit recently issued a decision in McKeen-Chaplin v. Provident Bank, turning the traditional administrative vs. production dichotomy of the administrative exemption on its head. In Provident Bank, the Ninth Circuit held that the bank’s mortgage underwriters are not exempt because their duties go to the heart of marketplace offerings rather than the administration of the bank’s business. In our view, that decision wrongly interpreted the administrative vs. production dichotomy and parted ways with the Sixth Circuit’s sound 2015 decision in Lutz v. Huntington Bank.

One additional point caught our eye: the prefatory language the Ninth Circuit used in Provident Bank in arriving at its conclusion that the administrative exemption did not apply. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit’s holding could have been predicted at the very beginning of the Court’s analysis. There, before even interpreting the administrative exemption, the court cleared its throat with a series of pronouncements we see all too frequently in FLSA jurisprudence:  “exemptions” the pronouncement goes, “are to be construed narrowly,” and must be “withheld except as to persons plainly and unmistakably within their terms and spirit.” The Ninth Circuit hearkened back to this language later in its opinion as well.

But while exemptions must be construed narrowly, the quotation continues, the FLSA as a whole “is to be liberally construed to apply to the furthest reaches consistent with Congressional direction.” This language is not unique; it appears in most, though not all, FLSA administrative exemption cases, and variants of it appear in other FLSA contexts, usually in those opinions permitting FLSA cases to move forward. Earlier this summer, for instance, the Sixth Circuit rejected an employer’s decertification effort by first explaining that “Congress passed the FLSA with broad remedial intent,” and that the provisions of the FLSA are “remedial and humanitarian in purpose and must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.”

This type of language, though perhaps useful in predicting the direction a court is heading without needing to read the opinion all the way through, is an otherwise meaningless canon of statutory construction and ought to be put out to pasture.

First, the language is applied inconsistently. Variants of the above language are often employed in cases in which courts find that an employee or groups of employees are or may be owed additional overtime compensation. But when no FLSA violation is found, this language is more frequently absent. Indeed, we studied all federal appellate decisions issued this century that interpret the administrative exemption, of which there are a total of 61. Of the 17 that find that an employee or group of employees do not or might not meet the requirements for application of the administrative exemption, 13 of them use this type of language (76%). But when an appellate court finds the administrative exemption to apply, and thus an employee or group of employees is not owed any additional overtime compensation, this type of language is found in only 21 of 44 opinions (48%).

The Ninth Circuit is the most result-oriented of the federal circuits. It has issued 10 decisions this century interpreting the administrative exemption. Four of those opinions find the employee to be non-exempt or potentially non-exempt, and 3 of the 4 (75%) contain language about narrowly construing exemptions and/or broadly construing the FLSA’s overtime provisions. Six of those opinions find employees to be properly classified as exempt, and only one of those opinions contains this language (17%).

In other words, language providing that the FLSA’s exemptions must be “narrowly construed” and/or which maintain that the FLSA is “remedial” or “humanitarian” and thus should be interpreted broadly appear to be used all too frequently as a tool to justify the outcome of a court’s decision, not as a meaningful analytical framework for reviewing the statute, interpreting its regulations, and determining whether job duties do or do not fall within an applicable FLSA exemption.

Second, delving into the origins of this language reveals its flimsy legal foundation. The language dates back to a 1945 Supreme Court case entitled A.H. Phillips, Inc. v. Walling, which held that a grocery store chain was not exempt from the FLSA’s requirements because it was not a “retail establishment” engaged primarily in the business of interstate commerce. The crux of Walling is that the employer was quite plainly trying to assert an exemption that did not apply. So the Supreme Court noted that it should not construe the FLSA’s exemptions too broadly and should give “due regard to the plain meaning of statutory language and the intent of Congress.” The Court then cited President Roosevelt’s May 24, 1934 message to Congress regarding the purpose of the FLSA, and declared, based on Roosevelt’s statement, that the FLSA is a “humanitarian and remedial” statute, and nebulously suggested that because the FLSA is “remedial” and “humanitarian” the exemptions should be “narrowly construed.” But the Supreme Court cited no authority in Walling for this assertion and provided no true reasoning. At its best, as noted below, this language is just an imprecise statement that the FLSA’s exemptions should not be construed so broadly that they swallow the statute’s other material provisions. At its worst, this language is just unsupported dicta that had no bearing on the outcome of the particular case and was never intended to be a grand pronouncement of how courts should interpret the FLSA or its exemptions moving forward.

Third, and as a logical outgrowth of the second point, the way this canon of interpretation is now used by litigants and courts does not make sense. As an initial matter, it is hard to see why one section of a statute or regulation would be interpreted broadly and another narrowly, which is precisely what courts and litigants suggest when they cite to this language. Indeed, as suggested above and as Judge Posner noted in the Seventh Circuit’s decision Yi v. Sterling Collision Centers, Inc., the language likely just means that an exemption should not be construed so broadly that it “renders the statutory remedy ineffectual or easily evaded.” The language does not mean, though, that an employer bears a higher burden of proof in asserting an exemption–which, again, appears to be how this language is usually used. Further, courts and litigants justify their use of this language by reasoning that the FLSA is “humanitarian and remedial” legislation. If legislation is humanitarian and/or remedial, the reasoning goes, exemptions to the legislation must be viewed with a jaundiced eye and other provisions more generously. But this begs a key question: what piece of legislation passed by Congress is not intended as remedial or humanitarian? It would seem that one has to presume that Congress is always attempting to benefit the public, and that it does not classify its legislation as though some is for the public good, some is for the benefit of lobbying or business groups, and some is to score political points. All legislation is aimed in some way at benefitting the public interest (or at least we would like to, and have to, assume); it is both illogical and unjust that exceptions to one particular piece of legislation would be held to a higher standard of proof without articulation of that standard in the text of the statute itself. The FLSA should instead be interpreted to mean what it says, exemptions and all; one section should not receive a boost based solely on unsupported, gratuitous language drawn from a 72 year-old Supreme Court case.

And indeed, it appears that the Supreme Court may now be shying away from this “narrowly construe exemptions” language. The Supreme Court stated in Sandifer v. U.S. Steel and Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., for instance, that this language does not apply to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the FLSA’s definitions section found at 29 U.S.C. § 203. The Court further intimated in Sandifer that it may revisit the “narrowly construed exemptions” language at a later date. And last year, Justice Thomas concluded his dissent in Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro by noting that exemptions should not be construed any more narrowly than how they are written.

Perhaps the selective citation to unsound and outdated language applying the FLSA’s exemptions and construing the FLSA as a whole is a symptom of our modern legal research model, in which “copy and paste” can all too often supplant reasoned analysis. Or maybe it is just how lawyers and judges have always supported their arguments and decisions–searching for language to bolster a position without giving due regard to the implications or background of the language itself. Whatever the reason, case language maintaining that the FLSA should be broadly construed but that exemptions should be construed narrowly is a nebulous, unsupported, illogical, and inconsistently applied canon of statutory construction and we should stop using it.

Co-authored by John Giovannone, Kyle Petersen, and Noah Finkel

Seyfarth Synopsis: Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit chose to side with the Second Circuit, and not the Sixth Circuit, to opine that mortgage underwriters fail to meet the FLSA’s administrative exemption from overtime test because underwriting duties “go to the heart of… marketplace offerings, not to the internal administration of” the mortgage banking “business.” That is, their duties were found to fall on the “production side” of the tortuous, judicially created “administrative/production” dichotomy.

Selling loans is not a duty that satisfies the FLSA’s administrative exemption test. But loan underwriters do not sell or even drive sales of loans. If anything, they apply the brakes after a loan officer has made the pitch and obtained a loan application from a prospective borrower.

Underwriters perform a distinct back-office role. They apply a multitude of factors to decide whether their employers should extend credit—after the application has been completed and the loan has been sold pending approval. We only have to look back about a decade to this country’s housing credit crisis to appreciate the central importance to a lender of a high-functioning and discerning underwriting team.

Historically, Underwriters Have Been Found Exempt Under The Administrative Exemption

Particularly now, given the odor that still wafts from the bursting of the housing bubble, one would think the modern judiciary would readily view underwriters as primarily providing a centrally important variety of “office or non-manual work related to the management or general operations of the employer” lender—work that thus satisfies this requirement of the administrative exemption test.

And in 2015, consistent with this common-sensical assessment of underwriting, the Sixth Circuit in Lutz v. Huntington Bank concluded that mortgage underwriters were administrative exempt precisely because they “assist in the running and servicing of the Bank’s business by making decisions about when [the Bank] should take on certain kinds of credit risk, something that is ancillary to the Bank’s principal production of selling loans.”

Ninth Circuit Denies Underwriters’ Administrative Exemption

Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit, in McKeen-Chaplin v. Provident Bank deviated from the Sixth Circuit’s sound decision in Lutz. In assessing whether mortgage underwriters’ work is “related to the management or general operations” of the bank, examined a judicially created “framework for understanding whether employees satisfy [this] requirement [called] the ‘administrative-production dichotomy.’”

The dichotomy’s purpose, Provident Bank explained, “is to distinguish between the goods and services which constitute the business’ marketplace offerings” (so-called non-exempt production work), “and work which contributes to ‘running the business itself’” (so-called exempt administrative work).

          Provident Bank’s Labored Discussion of The Administrative/Production Dichotomy And The Circuit Split.  Provident Bank applied its strained view of administrative/production dichotomy by first observing that, “in the last decade, two of our sister Circuits have assessed whether mortgage underwriters qualify for the FLSA’s administrative exemption and have come to opposite conclusions. The Second Circuit held in Davis v. J.P. Morgan Chase [in] 2009.. that ‘the job of an underwriter… falls into the category of production rather than administrative work.’ … In contrast, the Sixth Circuit held recently that mortgage underwriters are exempt administrators, explaining that they ‘perform work that services the Bank’s business, something ancillary to [the Bank’s] principal production activity’… . [W]e conclude the Second Circuit’s analysis in Davis should apply.”

Having voiced a preference for the Second Circuit’s more restrictive application of the administrative/production dichotomy (which had, perhaps erroneously, assumed that underwriters were involved in the sale of mortgages), Provident Bank applied the dichotomy to hold that the mortgage underwriters were production workers, even while conceding a number of non-production components of mortgage underwriter work.

Provident Bank observed, for example, that mortgage underwriters “do review factual information and evaluate the loan product and information and … assess liability in the form of risk,” but then immediately dismissed this important role by concluding that the bank’s promulgation of underwriter “guidelines that [the underwriters] do not formulate,” somehow reduced the administrative quality of the work.

Provident Bank even went on to acknowledge the existence of significant differentiation between non-exempt “loan offers in the mortgage production process [and mortgage underwriters]—most significantly [the distinguishing fact that underwriters’] primary duty is not making sales on Provident’s behalf.”

          A “Not So Distinct From Production” Standard?  Despite these factual findings, the Provident Bank court still applied the administrative/production dichotomy to invalidate the bank’s determination of exempt status. To accomplish this goal, Provident Bank articulated a “not so distinct from production” standard, explaining that the mortgage underwriters were still not administrative exempt because their duties “are not so distinct” from loan officers’ role in the “mortgage production process” so “as to be lifted from the production side [of the dichotomy] to the ranks of administrators.” The Ninth Circuit then ratcheted the standard up by explaining that “the question is not whether an employee is essential to the business, but rather whether her primary duty goes to the heart of internal administration — rather than marketplace offerings” (emphasis added).

This “not so distinct from production” standard highlights the limitations of the administrative/production dichotomy and runs afoul of its intended purpose. For example, the Department of Labor’s 2004 regulations, and case law, have made clear that this “dichotomy has always been illustrative – but not dispositive – of exempt status.” The dichotomy “is only determinative if the work ‘falls squarely’ on the production side of the line.”

Certainly, work that “is not so distinct” from the production side of the line is a far cry from work that “falls squarely” on the production side of the line. But a finding that work is not so distinct from production, though virtually meaningless, is all that Provident Bank seems to require.

The Administrative-Production Dichotomy Has Been Stretched Beyond Its Utility, Resulting In A Circuit Split And Confusion

Provident Bank’s finding that underwriting work “is not so distinct from production” work has little to do with the test for administrative exemption or the Department of Labor’s explanation of the limitations of the administrative/production dichotomy. Yet Provident Bank threatens to flip the dichotomy on its head, as it could be read to require an employer to show that that the work “falls squarely” off “the production side of the line” rather than establishing merely what the FLSA requires: that the employee performed office or non-manual work related to the management or general operations of the employer.

Sometimes, work such as underwriting does not obviously fall squarely on one side of the administrative/production dichotomy line or the other. That is why, for example, even the historically exemption-resistant California Supreme Court in Harris v. Superior Court (2011) observed “the limitations of the administrative/production worker dichotomy itself as an analytical tool” and thus reversed a decision that “improperly applied the administrative/production worker dichotomy as a dispositive test” with respect to insurance claims adjusters.  Harris explained that since “the dichotomy suggests a distinction between the administration of a business on the one hand, and the ‘production’ end on the other, courts often strain to fit the operations of modern-day post-industrial service-oriented businesses into the analytical framework formulated in the industrial climate of the late 1940’s’” when they should not force a strained application of the dichotomy, which is just an illustrative tool. Indeed, the Seventh Circuit of Appeals similarly reasoned in Roe-Midgett v. CC Services, Inc., (7th Cir. 2008) that the “typical example” of the dichotomy is a factory setting, an analogy that is “not terribly useful” in the service context.

Two Circuits have now built the administrative/production dichotomy into something larger than it was ever intended to be. The focus on the administrative/production dichotomy has overshadowed and confused focus on the actual rules and regulations intended to be assessed in considering the administrative exemption.

Provident Bank creates more questions than answers for employers seeking to classify their workforce, and calls out for Supreme Court review, or for Department of Labor clarification on how courts are supposed to apply the administrative-production dichotomy.

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.

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.