I have been representing an employer in a class action in which Registered Nurses, paid hourly, sought overtime. We won on summary judgment at the trial court, on the strength of two New Jersey Department of Labor Opinion Letters (one going back to 1975), that held that it was the DOL’s interpretation that as long as the Nurses (or other professionals) performed “professional” work, they were exempt from overtime provided they made the minimum amount required (i.e. $400 per week). The claimed liability reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In sum, on the basis of two pieces of paper, we succeeded in securing the dismissal of the case. The case is entitled Anderson v. Phoenix Health Care, Inc., A-2607-10T2 (N.J. App. Div. Nov. 16, 2011).
On November 16, 2011, the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed this lower court holding. The Court noted that courts should defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own laws and regulations if that interpretation was not “plainly unreasonable.” Against that framework, the Court held that this interpretation was not, in fact, “plainly unreasonable,” even though hourly payment was not ostensibly “allowed” by the applicable regulations. The Court reasoned that the “critical question is whether the employee is a professional, not whether that professional’s compensation is determined by reference to an hourly rate instead of a salaried rate.”
The Court also concluded that, even if this longstanding, i.e. almost forty years, interpretation was not reasonable, my client could avail itself of the safe harbor, good faith exception found in New Jersey law (and the FLSA and, more likely than not, the wage hour laws of many States). That good faith exception provides “immunity” for a defendant when that entity has conducted itself in reliance upon or in conformity with interpretations or enforcement practices of a the relevant agency. That is what my client had done in this case.
So, in essence, we used the Opinion Letters for both of these purposes, in an offensive manner, as a sword, rather than a shield. First, we argued that the interpretation was not unreasonable, but even if we lost on the ground, we claimed the refuge of the safe harbor. The lesson for employers is that if they wish guidance on a certain point of law, securing an Opinion Letter provides not only guidance, but also protection, even if the logic or reasoning of the Letter is ultimately struck down by a Court, the particular employer that conducted itself in accord with the Letter will not be held liable.
The irony in this is that as New Jersey has now adopted the FLSA regulations (as of a few months ago), this defense would likely not be available to an overtime claim filed by an hourly paid Registered Nurse.