By: Colleen M. Regan

Seyfarth Summary: On July 12, 2018, the California Supreme Court agreed to address questions posed by the Ninth Circuit about whether California Labor Code provisions apply to an out-of-state employer whose employees work part of their time in California. Nationwide employers with employees jetting in to work temporarily in California need to return their seats to an upright position and follow this developing story.

Is your business flying high in the current economy? Profits reaching new altitudes? Maybe you have employees residing in one state while working in another. If some work occasionally in California, prepare to fasten your seatbelts for a potentially rough landing. Even if your employees work in California only intermittently (think partial days), and even if your company is not headquartered in the Golden State, the California Supreme Court may soon bring you down to earth.

Background

Traditionally, employers in paying their employees have applied the wage and hour law of the state where the employee sides or most often works, even if the employee occasionally works in another state. In California, however, the rules are peculiar.

In a 2011 decision, Sullivan v. Oracle, the California Supreme Court held that non-California residents working in California for a California-based employer were subject to California daily overtime laws if they performed their in-state work for whole days. Oracle left employers up in the air as to whether California law would apply in other contexts, such as (a) when non-California residents work partial days of work in California, (b) when the employees worked for non-California based employers, or (c) when the wage and hour provisions at issue were something other than the cal-peculiar rules on daily overtime.

The Certified Questions

Which brings us to the current Ninth Circuit cases. Specifically, in three airline cases raising California issues in federal court (two cases against United Airlines, one against Delta), the Ninth Circuit requested the California Supreme Court to address five questions, paraphrased below:

(1) Does the federal Railway Labor Act exemption found in Wage Order 9 bar a wage-statement claim (Labor Code § 226) by an employee who is covered by a collective bargaining agreement?

(2) Does Section 226 apply to wage statements that an out-of-state employer provides to an employee who resides in California, who receives pay in California, and who pays California income tax on her wages, but who does not work principally in California?

(3) Does Section 226 and Labor Code § 204 (governing timely wage payments to current employees) apply to payments that an out-of-state employer makes to an employee who, in the relevant period, works in California only episodically and for less than a day at a time?

(4) Does California minimum wage law apply to out-of-state employers for the California work that their employees perform in California only episodically and for less than a day at a time?

(5) Does California’s peculiar rule preventing pay-averaging for employees paid by commission or piece rate apply to a pay formula that generally awards credit for all hours on duty, but that does not always award pay credit for all hours on duty?

In the underlying lawsuits, United pilots and Delta flight attendants claim that the airlines violated California Labor Code provisions on wage statements, minimum wage, and the timing and completeness of wage payments. United (based in Chicago) and Delta (based in Atlanta) both won at the district court level, successfully arguing that de minimis work within California does not trigger California law, especially when (i) the employers are not based in California, (ii) the employees work only limited amounts of time in the state, and (iii) the employees mostly work in federal air space and in multiple jurisdictions during a single pay period or even a single day.

Why Does This Matter to Employers Based Outside California?

The guidance that the California Supreme Court will issue may ensnare non-California employers in a complex web of Labor Code laws for employees who work in California only sporadically, or who merely stop in California on their way to other work locations. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will stretch to apply California’s peculiar rules on wage statements, daily overtime, and minimum wage to such transitory California work. Or whether California rules on meal and rest beaks, or paid sick time, might also be implicated.

Based on recent emanations from our high court, we would not be surprised to see another extension of California’s employee-protective laws. Any such extension would be highly problematic in light of California’s robust civil and statutory penalties for Labor Code violations. The state’s Private Attorneys General Act authorizes penalty lawsuits brought on a representative basis on behalf of all “aggrieved employees or former employees.” While we do not predict that California will attempt to regulate employment of individuals who merely fly through California airspace, all employers with employees having feet on the ground in California need to sit up, return their tray tables to their original position, and be alert to these pending decisions.

Workplace Solution: The California Supreme Court’s opinion regarding the certified questions will not come down for many months. In the meanwhile, sit back, enjoy the flight, and watch this space for further developments. Feel free to contact your favorite Seyfarth attorney if you would like to discuss.

Authored by Robert Whitman

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Department of Labor has scrapped its 2010 Fact Sheet on internship status and adopted the more flexible and employer-friendly test devised by Second Circuit.

In a decision that surprised no one who has followed the litigation of wage hour claims by interns, the US Department of Labor has abandoned its ill-fated six-part test for intern status in for-profit companies and replaced it with a more nuanced set of factors first articulated by the Second Circuit in 2015. The move officially eliminates agency guidance that several appellate courts had explicitly rejected as inconsistent with the FLSA.

The DOL announced the move with little fanfare. In a brief statement posted on its website on January 5, it said:

On Dec. 19, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit became the fourth federal appellate court to expressly reject the U.S. Department of Labor’s six-part test for determining whether interns and students are employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The Department of Labor today clarified that going forward, the Department will conform to these appellate court rulings by using the same “primary beneficiary” test that these courts use to determine whether interns are employees under the FLSA. The Wage and Hour Division will update its enforcement policies to align with recent case law, eliminate unnecessary confusion among the regulated community, and provide the Division’s investigators with increased flexibility to holistically analyze internships on a case-by-case basis.

The DOL rolled out the six-part test in 2010 in a Fact Sheet issued by the Wage and Hour Division. The test provided that an unpaid intern at a for-profit company would be deemed an employee under the FLSA unless all six factors—requiring in essence that the internship mirror the type of instruction received in a classroom setting and that the employer “derive[] no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern”—were met. The upshot of the test was that if the company received any economic benefit from the intern’s services, the intern was an employee and therefore entitled to minimum wage, overtime, and other protections of the FLSA.

Spurred by the DOL’s guidance, plaintiffs filed a flurry of lawsuits, especially in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York. But despite some initial success, their claims were not well received. The critical blow came in 2015 from the Second Circuit, which in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Picture Searchlight emphatically rejected the DOL’s test, stating, “[W]e do not find it persuasive, and we will not defer to it.” Instead, it said, courts should examine the internship relationship as a whole and determine the “primary beneficiary.” It crafted its own list of seven non-exhaustive factors designed to answer that question. Other courts soon followed the Second Circuit’s lead, capped off by the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in late December.

For the new leadership at the DOL, that was the final blow. In the wake of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the agency not only scrapped the six-factor test entirely, but adopted the seven-factor Glatt test verbatim in a new Fact Sheet.

While the DOL’s action marks the official end of the short-lived six factors, the history books will note that the Glatt decision itself was the more significant event in the brief shelf-life of internship litigation. As we have noted previously in this space, the Glatt court not only adopted a more employer-friendly test than the DOL and the plaintiffs’ bar had advocated; it also expressed grave doubts about whether lawsuits by interns would be suitable for class or collective action treatment. The DOL’s new Fact Sheet reiterates those doubts, stating, “Courts have described the ‘primary beneficiary test’ as a flexible test, and no single factor is determinative. Accordingly, whether an intern or student is an employee under the FLSA necessarily depends on the unique circumstances of each case.”

That aspect of the ruling, more than its resolution of the merits, was likely the beginning of the end for internship lawsuits. In the months and years since Glatt was decided, the number of internship lawsuits has dropped precipitously.

At this point, only the college student depicted recently in The Onion  seems to be holding out hope. But as we’ve advised many times, employers should not get complacent. Unpaid interns, no matter how willing they are to work for free, are not a substitute for paid employees and should not be treated as glorified volunteer coffee-fetchers. As the new DOL factors make clear, internship experiences still must be predominantly educational in character. If not, it will be the interns (and their lawyers) giving employers a harsh lesson in wage and hour compliance.

Co-authored by Noah Finkel and Cheryl Luce

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Monday, the DOL issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking announcing rescission of a rule that regulates tip pooling by employers who do not take the tip credit.

The DOL has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding the tip pooling regulations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The FLSA allows employers to take a tip credit toward their minimum wage obligations, and employee tips may be pooled together, but pooling of tips is allowed only “among employees who customarily and regularly receive tips.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(m). The DOL took the tip pooling law a step further in 2011 when it promulgated a regulation that prohibits employers from operating tip pools even when they do not take the tip credit. The regulation states: “Tips are the property of the employee whether or not the employer has taken a tip credit under section 3(m) of the FLSA.” 29 C.F.R. § 531.52.

The DOL’s tip pooling rule has been unpopular with courts—and for good reason, as we have previously noted. Indeed, several federal courts have found that it is overbroad and invalid, excluding the Ninth Circuit. In the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the DOL agrees with the holdings of most courts and, while not outright stamping the rule as “overbroad” or beyond the DOL’s authority, states that the DOL is concerned “about the scope of its current tip regulations” and “is also seriously concerned that it incorrectly construed the statute in promulgating the tip regulations that apply to” employers who do not take the tip credit. The DOL’s about-face is also motivated by policy concerns. The Notice explains that removing the rule “provides such employers and employees greater flexibility in determining the pay policies for tipped and non-tipped workers [and] allows them to reduce wage disparities among employees who all contribute to the customers’ experience and to incentivize all employees to improve that experience regardless of their position.” Finally, the DOL notes that the increase in state laws prohibiting tip credits and the volume of litigation over this issue contributed to its decision to put the rule on the chopping block.

The end of the rule does not come as a surprise as both the DOL and courts have sounded the death knell this year. On July 20, 2017, the DOL issued a nonenforcement policy to not enforce the rule with respect to employees who are paid at least minimum wage. Additionally, the National Restaurant Association filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court asking for review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which is still pending.

The DOL announced that if the rule is finalized as proposed, the rule would qualify as an “EO 13771 deregulatory action” under the Trump administration’s “two-for-one” executive order that requires federal agencies to cut two existing regulations for every new regulation they implement. Once the proposal is published in the Federal Register, interested parties will have the opportunity to provide comments regarding the Department’s proposal within 30 days. Only after these steps is the rule made final.

Co-authored by Kara Goodwin and Noah Finkel

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Ninth Circuit recently joined the Second, Fourth, Eighth, and D.C. Circuits in holding that the relevant unit for determining minimum-wage compliance under the FLSA is the workweek as a whole, rather than each individual hour within the workweek.

Yes, Virginia, contrary to the contentions of some plaintiffs’ counsel, the FLSA does allow for flexibility in how employers compensate their employees. In the recent case of Douglas v. Xerox Business Services, the Ninth Circuit rejected the argument that the FLSA measures minimum-wage compliance on an hour-by-hour basis; instead, the Ninth Circuit copied the other circuits that have addressed the issue and concluded that minimum-wage compliance is measured by weekly per-hour averages.

The plaintiffs—customer service representatives at call centers run by Xerox—were paid under what the court described as a “convoluted” and “mind-numbingly complex payment plan” where employees earned different rates depending on the task and the time spent on that task. In reality, the pay arrangement was not terribly difficult to discern. For certain defined activities like trainings and meetings, employees received a flat rate per hour; for time spent managing inbound calls, employees were paid a variable rate calculated based on a matrix of qualitative and efficiency controls; all remaining tasks had no specific designated rate.

At the end of each workweek, Xerox totaled all amounts earned (for defined activities and for activities paid at the variable rate) and divided that total by the number of hours worked that week. If the resulting average hourly wage equaled or exceeded minimum wage, Xerox did not pay the employee anything more. But if the average hourly wage fell below minimum wage, Xerox gave the employee subsidy pay to bump the average hourly wage up to minimum wage.

In the plaintiffs’ view, because Xerox averaged across a workweek, it compensated above minimum wage for some hours and below minimum wage for others, thereby violating the FLSA. Plaintiffs sought back pay for each hour they worked at sub-minimum wage because, they claimed, the FLSA bars an employer from paying below minimum wage for a single hour.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed and concluded that the relevant unit for determining minimum-wage compliance under the FLSA is the workweek as a whole and, as such, Xerox properly compensated employees for all hours worked by using a workweek average to arrive at the appropriate wage.

Although the FLSA’s “text, structure, and purpose” provided “few answers” to the per-hour versus per-workweek question, the Department of Labor’s longstanding per-workweek construction and decisions by sister circuits shaped the Ninth Circuit’s holding. The Department of Labor adopted the per-workweek measure just over a year and a half after the FLSA was passed in 1938 and has never deviated from this understanding: “[T]he workweek [is] the standard period of time over which wages may be averaged to determine whether the employer has paid the equivalent of [the minimum wage].”

Courts—including every circuit that has addressed the issue—have overwhelmingly followed the Department of Labor’s guidance. The Second Circuit first embraced the per-workweek construction in 1960 in United States v. Klinghoffer Brothers Realty Corp., explaining that “the [c]ongressional purpose is accomplished so long as the total weekly wage paid by an employer meets the minimum weekly requirements of the statute.” The Fourth (Blankenship v. Thurston Motor Lines, Inc.), Eighth (Hensley v. MacMillan Bloedel Containers, Inc.), D.C. (Dove v. Coupe), and now Ninth Circuits have also agreed that minimum wage compliance is measured by the workweek as a whole. No circuit has taken a contrary position.

As is often the case, plaintiffs relied heavily on the fact that the “FLSA is remedial legislation” that “must be construed broadly in favor of employees” (if you are a frequent reader of this blog you are aware of our feelings on this language as described in detail here) and argued that a per-hour approach is necessary to ensure workers are protected from wage and hour abuses. But, as the Ninth Circuit pointed out, there is no empirical evidence that broad application of the workweek standard disadvantages employees in any way. As this case makes clear, even if employees (or their attorneys) are unhappy with an employer’s pay plan, there is no violation of the FLSA’s minimum wage provision so long as an employee’s total compensation for the week divided by total hours worked results in a rate that is at or above the minimum wage.

Co-Authored by Sheryl Skibbe, Jon Meer, and Michael Afar

Seyfarth Synopsis: A recent court decision credited Nike’s time and motion study showing employees spent mere seconds of time in off-the-clock bag checks, finding the checks to be too trivial and difficult to capture to require payment. In contrast, the class failed to present actual evidence showing any amount of compensable time spent by the class off-the-clock while managers inspected their bags or checked their jackets.

In Rodriguez v. Nike Retail Services, Inc., Nike defeated a class action alleging that hourly retail workers were owed money for the time they spent waiting for security inspections after they had clocked out and were exiting the store.

Nike hired an expert to conduct a study of exit inspections, which showed that the average inspection takes no more than 18.5 seconds and that 60.5 percent of all exits required zero wait time. Rather than submit contradictory evidence in response to Nike’s 700 hours of video, which the court found to be representative of the class period, Plaintiff Isaac Rodriguez relied on an expert declaration attempting to poke holes in Nike’s study.

Judge Beth Labson Freeman called Plaintiff’s strategy “misguided,” rejecting “Rodriguez’s attempt to equate this situation to a battle of experts sufficient to deny summary judgment.” “[P]oint[ing] out flaws in the other side’s evidence,” was not the same as “offering any conflicting evidence for the jury to consider at trial on the relevant claim or defense.”

Evaluating Nike’s evidence under the de minimis defense, and recognizing that daily periods of up to 10 minutes have been found to be de minimis, Judge Freeman ruled that the workers hadn’t shown that their off-the-clock exit time was close to meeting that threshold. Although Rodriguez pointed to testimony from three store managers who estimated that some employees may have had a few inspections with higher wait-times, the judge found that wait-times of two or five minutes were too trivial, irregular and administratively difficult to capture.

Judge Freeman also agreed that repositioning time clocks to the front of the store so that employees could clock out after the check was not required. Taking a practical view, the court noted that “brief exit inspections are a modern business reality that most retailers, like Nike, use for the legitimate reason of reducing theft.”

Although the California Supreme Court is considering the de minimis doctrine in Troester v. Starbucks Corp., Judge Freeman declined Rodriguez’s invitation to “predict how the California Supreme Court will rule.” Instead, she noted that the court was compelled to apply existing law to the case, finding the Ninth Circuit and other courts had applied the de minimis doctrine to California claims.

For the moment, this ruling is good news for employers who can put away their stop watches when small increments of off-the-clock time are irregular and difficult to record. But keep your eye on the ball because the California Supreme Court will be making the final call on the de minimis doctrine and whether or how it applies in the state.

Co-authored by Abigail Cahak and Noah Finkel

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Ninth Circuit has created a circuit split by rejecting the DOL’s interpretation of FLSA regulations on use of the tip credit to pay regularly tipped employees, finding that the interpretation is both inconsistent with the regulation and attempts to create a de facto new regulation.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an important and restaurant-friendly decision rejecting the Department of Labor’s interpretation of FLSA regulations on the use of the tip credit when paying regularly tipped employees.

In Marsh v. J. Alexander’s, the Ninth Circuit addressed a number of actions brought by servers and bartenders who alleged that their employers improperly used the tip credit and thus failed to pay them the required minimum wage. Relying on DOL interpretive guidance, the plaintiffs asserted that their non-tip generating duties took up more than 20% of their work hours, that they were employed in dual occupations, and that they were thus owed the regular minimum wage for that time. The district court dismissed the case, holding that Marsh had not alleged a dual occupation and that deference to the DOL guidance underpinning his theory of the case was unwarranted. Marsh appealed.

Under the FLSA’s regulations, an individual employed in dual occupations–one tipped and one not–cannot be paid using the tip credit for hours worked in the non-tipped occupation. The regulations clarify, however, that “[s]uch a situation is distinguishable from that of a waitress who spends part of her time cleaning and setting tables, toasting bread, making coffee[,] and occasionally washing dishes or glasses. . . . Such related duties in an occupation that is a tipped occupation need not by themselves be directed toward producing tips.” Yet, current DOL guidance imposes time and duty-based limitations not present in the regulations: the tip credit may not be used if an employee spends over 20% of hours in a workweek performing duties related to the tipped occupation but not themselves tip-generating. The guidance goes on to state that an employer also may not take the tip credit for time spent on duties not related to the tipped occupation because such an employee is “effectively employed in dual jobs.” That guidance had been followed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and several lower courts. It created a feeding frenzy among some plaintiffs’ lawyers, causing restaurant employers to ask servers and bartenders to track their time spent on various activities down to the minute, or risk facing a collective action lawsuit in which they have to try to rebut a servers’ claims that they had spent excessive time on activities that arguably were not tip producing.

The Ninth Circuit, however, concluded in Marsh that the DOL’s guidance was both inconsistent with the FLSA regulations and attempted to create a de facto new regulation such that it did not merit deference. In particular, the court noted the regulations’ focus on dual occupations or jobs as contrasted with the DOL guidance: “[i]nstead of providing further guidance on what constitutes a distinct job, [the DOL] takes an entirely different approach; it . . . disallows tip credits on a minute-by-minute basis based on the type and quantity of tasks performed. Because the dual jobs regulation is concerned with when an employee has two jobs, not with differentiating between tasks within a job, the [DOL’s] approach is inapposite and inconsistent with the dual jobs regulation.” Moreover, the DOL guidance “creates an alternative regulatory approach with new substantive rules . . . [and] ‘is de facto a new regulation’ masquerading as an interpretation.”

In so holding, the Ninth Circuit broke with the Eighth Circuit’s 2011 decision in Fast v. Applebee’s International, Inc. and explicitly rejected the Eighth Circuit’s analysis in that case. We previously blogged about the Fast decision here.

Marsh creates a circuit split and is particularly notable coming from the frequently employee-friendly Ninth Circuit. There remains, however, contrary authority in many parts of the country, and the decision has no bearing on state laws, some of which may nonetheless follow the DOL’s reasoning. It’s also likely that this Ninth Circuit panel does not have the last word on this issue. This opinion could receive further review by the full Ninth Circuit or by the Supreme Court, and if the Supreme Court does not resolve the circuit split, other appellate courts are likely to weigh in. Regardless, the decision points out the absurdities of the DOL’s current position and demonstrates the need for guidance on the issue from the DOL once its’ appointees are in place.

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 Holger G. Besch 

Perhaps signaling the importance of the issue for American businesses and jurisprudence, the U.S. Supreme Court‎ chose the first day of its term beginning in October as the date to set oral arguments in three petitions for certiorari asking whether employees can be required to waive their rights via arbitration agreements to file class and collective actions against their employers. The arguments in Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris; Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis; and NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., will all be heard on October 2nd, so mark your calendars.

The cases before the Supreme Court originated either before the National Labor Relations Board, which had ruled that such agreements violate workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act to take collective action to ameliorate their working conditions, or with district courts that had used the NLRB’s ruling to reject employers’ motions to compel bilateral arbitration of putative collective and class actions.

SCOTUS will be resolving the resulting Circuit split, in which the Ninth and Seventh Circuits backed the NLRB’s position when they ruled against Ernst & Young and Epic Systems, respectively, and the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of Murphy Oil. Opening briefs are already on file and address, at bottom, whether the Federal Arbitration Act or the NLRA should take precedence.