Law firms are usually defending clients in wage-hour suits where the allegation is that the employee claims he/she has been misclassified as exempt when they are really not and are due overtime. But, law firms themselves must be diligent about properly classifying their own employees, especially when they categorize employees exempt under the administrative exemption. This is the lesson being learned by the so-called boutique intellectual property law firm of Turocy & Watson LLP, where a legal secretary has filed a class action, charging that the firm did not properly pay the “class” of secretaries overtime.

The case is docketed as Osolin v. Turocy & Watson, LLP et al. filed in federal court in the Northern District of Ohio and charges a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.. The plaintiff believes there are approximately 30 legal secretaries in the class. All of these secretaries were paid a salary and were allegedly misclassified as exempt.

The complaint alleges that none of the plaintiffs did any managerial work or directed the work of employees, or had authority to hire and fire. Under that factual predicate, the plaintiffs would not fit within the executive exemption, but the firm will likely defend on the basis that they are administrative employees. As I have often warned, this is the most difficult exemption to prove and if the facts show that the secretaries performed secretarial, clerical work the majority of the time, this exemption will not be available as it will founder on the “discretion and independent judgment” element.

It is highly doubtful that the firm could show they were professional employees, even if the employees were given the moniker “paralegal,” as paralegals are explicitly deemed non-exempt under the federal regulations.

The burden of proof is always on the employer in an exemption case. This behooves employers, law firms or otherwise, to make reasoned, defensible exemption determinations and classifications at the time of hire, because it only takes a single plaintiff to start a world of trouble. In sum, these lawyers need a lawyer.