I have found a very interesting exemption case involving a rather unique job title that also is very instructive in the interpretation of the Highly Compensated Exemption (“HCE”) under the Part 541 FLSA exemption tests. The case involved an employee whose title was Organ Procurement Coordinator, who was seeking back due overtime, claiming he was a non-exempt employee. The case is entitled Smith v. Ochsner Health System et al. and issued from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Fifth Circuit panel affirmed the lower court’s decision. The employee acknowledged that his primary duties included “customarily and regularly” arranging for organ donations and then planning the manner of transport for the organs and the logistics involved in that. The employee also earned more than $100,000 per annum (actually $120,000). The Court determined that this job function related to business operations, which meant that he was performing an administrative job duty, qualifying him for the administrative exemption. As the Court aptly put it, “we need not examine other job duties, though, because just one exempt duty suffices.”
The HCE exemption provides that workers will be exempt as highly compensated employees if they are compensated, in total, in excess of $100,000 annually (as of 1/1/20, $107,000) and they must perform but a single job duty that is deemed exempt. At least $455 per week of that compensation (as of 1/1/20, $684) must be a “salary.” The worker must also perform that exempt work as his “primary duty.” The Court (quite correctly) would not credit this employee’s job title as proof of his exempt status under the HCE but concluded that the record demonstrated that his job duties related to business operations; he also interviewed potential employees and ordered supplies. Tellingly, the plaintiff did not dispute that he performed these job duties.
In his role as Organ Procurement Coordinator, the plaintiff was the primary channel of communication between the hospital and the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency. He was tasked with responding to calls at all times of the day. He also scrutinized the medical histories of possible donors, relayed vital data about the organs to the surgeons and then ensured that the organs were properly and safely transported.
The HCE exemption should be one of the first (if not the first) places a defense practitioner looks at when defending an exemption lawsuit. If the person at issue makes more than the (now required) $107,000 per year, it is a pretty good bet you can find a single exempt function that this person performs. In this case, the Fifth Circuit that arranging for organ donations and coordinating that process affected general business operations and that was enough for the administrative exemption to apply.
A magic bullet…