There has not been much litigation over the HCE, the so-called Highly Compensated Employee exemption under the FLSA. Recently, an interesting case explored the issue of whether commission payments can form the entirety of the required salary. In Pierce v. Wyndham Vacation Resorts, Inc., a federal court interpreted this exemption to determine this issue. The case was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Tennessee.

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The court observed that the regulation allowed a highly compensated employee to be paid on a salary or a fee basis. The Court looked at related regulations and found that the highly compensated administrative or professional employees could be compensated on a salary or fee basis to comply with the exemption, but held that a highly compensated executive had to be paid on a salary basis, as the fee type of compensation did not apply to the executive exemption. Thus, the Court held that an exempt executive had to receive a salary of $455 per week, but that other forms of compensation could help satisfy the requirements of the highly compensated employee exemption.

The Court went on to explicate that even if the fee form of compensation applied to exempt executives, the Court held that the commissions paid to the plaintiffs were not a fee basis type of compensation. The Court stated explicitly that the Company’s argument was “illogical.” In that regard, the Court reasoned that if a commission could be considered a “fee basis,” “there would be no need for the Department of Labor to include the work ‘commission’ in the second sentence of the regulation” as an acceptable form of additional compensation to reach the $100,000 annual threshold.” Moreover, there was no showing that the commission paid to the plaintiffs were akin to a fee, as the commissions were founded on sales made and were linked to the results of the job.

The Court then examined a USDOL Opinion Letter in which employees were paid commissions but they also received a guaranteed salary. In this case, the employees did not receive any salary but were paid entirely by commissions. Therefore, they failed to satisfy the requirements of the highly compensated employee exemption.

The Takeaway

This is an unusual case but with a very valuable lesson. When deciding whether to classify an employee as exempt under the HCE exemption, a component of the aggregate compensation paid must be “pure” salary.  Even if that salary is the statutory minimum of $455 per week. The failure of the employer to do so in this case means that these employees, some making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, will be entitled to overtime!

How is that for the law of unintended consequences?

I remember with fondness the Sonny & Cher song, “The Beat Goes On.” That song could be easily applied to the saga of the USDOL overtime rule, which continues. Although the proposed rule has been shot down by the Fifth Circuit, the USDOL will now request that the Fifth Circuit reverse a Texas federal court order blocking the new rule. That new rule would have doubled the salary threshold for employees to be exempt.

The DOL has stated that it would request that the appellate court hold the appeal in abeyance “while the Department of Labor undertakes further rulemaking to determine what the salary level should be.” The agency, however, gave no details at all in the simple appeal notice. The cases are entitled State of Nevada et al. v. U.S. Department of Labor and Plano Chamber of Commerce et al v. R. Alexander Acosta, both filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Texas.

U.S. Department of Labor headquarters
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There is another case on this issue pending. The Fifth Circuit is simultaneously considering the government’s appeal of a preliminary injunction Judge Mazzant issued in November 2016, which stopped the rule from taking effect, but a few days before it would have been implemented. The Obama DOL appealed the ruling before the new Administration took over.

The District Court Judge, Amos Mazzant, had concluded that the USDOL exceeded its authority when it doubled the salary requirement for exempt status. The Judge stated that the DOL “exceeded its authority” by “creat[ing] a final rule that makes overtime status depend predominantly on a minimum salary level, thereby supplanting an analysis of an employee’s job duties.” The Obama DOL immediately appealed and although the Trump DOL initially followed up on the appeal, with the goal of having the Fifth Circuit affirm its power to set salary levels, the agency then requested that the Fifth Circuit dismiss the appeal prior to the grant of summary judgment.

One commentator observed “the appeal] is less about appealing Judge Mazzant’s decision to strike down the overtime regulations that had been proposed under President Obama’s administration and more about preserving the concept that the Department of Labor has the authority to modify the overtime rule to begin with.”

There is an expectation that the DOL will propose lifting the salary level to $30-35,000 per year. This would be what the 2004 level would now be, considering inflation. The Labor Secretary has given no indication of what the agency will do. He has, however, in the past, stated he might want to raise the salary level in that area.

The DOL issued a request for information in the summer, asking for public opinions on the manner in which the rule should be changed. Approximately 165,000 comments were submitted on different elements of any salary test, e.g. what level to set salary, whether geography should play a role.

The Takeaway

I believe the DOL has the authority to set salary levels, as it has done many times through the decades. The level that the agency chose, however, was unreasonable and would have been bad for business. I am also intrigued by the concept of making allowances for differences in salary level based on geography.

I think that makes good sense…

In every FLSA class action I have defended (as well as every demand letter I have seen on this subject) the plaintiff’s lawyer always alleges that the violations were “willful.” It does not matter what the facts are. No, they say, the violations are “always” willful. The violations rarely, in fact, are. Now, the Third Circuit has given defense practitioners some added ammunition to beat back these allegations. The case is entitled Souryavong v. Lackawanna Cty. and issued from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Courthouse pillarsThe Court made clear that to allege that the employer acted only “unreasonably” is insufficient and that a degree of “actual awareness is necessary.” The Court held that this is so even if the employer produces insufficient evidence of good faith. The Court explained “a jury question on willfulness is present when [an employer] is well aware of the FLSA’s structures, sets up a bureaucracy to classify pay and benefits and properly calculate overtime, and then despite all that allows a misclassification of a monthly payment to continue for nine years.”

The Court explained that for a plaintiff (or class) to prevail, the plaintiff “must put forward at least some evidence of the employer’s awareness of a violation of the FLSA overtime mandate.”  In other words, even if the employer cannot produce sufficient evidence of good faith, the plaintiff must prove that the employer intentionally violated applicable laws.

The Court noted that it was a truism that the employer must establish good faith, but it remained the plaintiff’s burden to show intentionality, i.e. that the employer either actually knew that it was violating the law or acted with reckless disregard.

The Takeaway

Employers must do everything possible to comply with the law. Employers should address potential wage-hour violations in a prompt manner and effect the appropriate remedies.  This will blunt the effect of any allegations of willfulness. We recommend that employers regularly conduct wage and hour audits to make sure that employees are properly classified as either exempt or non-exempt and that non-exempt employees are paid overtime in accordance with the law. In addition, such an audit will include an overview and analysis of all of the employer’s compensation and wage-hour practices.

That’s the cure for willfulness…

I have written a number of times about law firms that have been sued in FLSA actions. Another example. Employees have sued two Florida personal injury law firms, alleging that they were misclassified and not properly paid proper overtime wages in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In fact, there are two class actions filed. The cases are entitled Durrett v. Disparti Law Group PA et al and Hinkle v. Jodat Law Group PA. et al. Both cases were filed in federal court in the Middle District of Florida.

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The employees at issue in the Disparti suit are case managers; these are the same kind of employees whose status is at issue in the Jodat case.  The employees claim that their duties are non-exempt. The Durrett plaintiff alleged, “in most if not all work-weeks, plaintiff was paid for 40 hours but was not compensated time and half for hours worked over 40.” She alleged that the “defendant would pay plaintiff straight time by personal check for all hours over 40 in a workweek. This disguised method of compensation was implemented to circumvent the FLSA’s requirement for overtime compensation.”

The plaintiffs claim that the founders of the firm knew of these illegal payment practices and have named both of them as individual defendants. The suit also alleges that sometimes the defendant gave Durrett compensatory time and failed to pay Hinkle for her time spent delivering mail between the offices, although she asserted this was a routine part of her duties.  Hinkle claimed that the “defendants were able to avoid paying overtime by not paying plaintiff travel time when she would transport firm mail between office locations.

The women employees claim all they did was manage cases, keep clients informed of status of their cases, order supplies and organize files.  Ms. Durrett made a very (potentially) damaging allegation, i.e., that she was ordered to clock out and then keep working, many times in excess of fifty (50) hours per week. Naturally, the employees claim the violations were willful and that there are many other workers at these two firms with similar claims.

The Takeaway

Law firms, or doctor offices, are not immune to FLSA lawsuits, particularly on misclassification grounds. It is always the employer’s obligation to classify employees properly. It sounds like the employees at issue do mainly ministerial tasks, run-of-the-mill tasks that do not smack of exemption. Unless the plaintiffs (and possible opt-ins), supervise workers so they might possibly fit within the executive exemption, the only realistic possibility is the administrative exemption.

The grayest and toughest of the white-collar exemptions for the employer to prove…

There have been so many cases involving employees in the financial services industries and their exempt status or lack thereof. In another variation on this theme, Provident Savings Bank is seeking review by the US Supreme Court of a Ninth Circuit decision that gave new life to allegations that its mortgage underwriters are non-exempt and entitled to overtime. The bank asserts that these employees are exempt under USDOL regulations, i.e. the administrative regulations. The case is entitled Provident Savings Bank, FSB v. Gina McKeen-Chaplin, et al. and has been submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Banking and Financial Services
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The bank had defended the lawsuit by asserting that these workers did qualify as exempt administrative employees because their duties involved the “servicing” and “running” of the bank’s business by analyzing and evaluating whether the bank should risk money by rendering loans to certain borrowers. The petition states “nothing in the FLSA’s text or purpose justifies interpreting the ‘administrative’ exemption with a heavy thumb on the scale against the employer. Perhaps for that reason, this court has pointedly refused to apply the canon in recent FLSA cases.”

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the job functions of these workers, i.e. reviewing loan applications using guidelines set down by the bank and investors, were not the back office functions relating to management or general business operations that the exemption requires. The named plaintiff had appealed a lower court decision that granted summary judgment to the Bank.

The district court had first granted conditional certification but then threw the case out because it concluded that the underwriters fit within the administrative employee exemption because major, primary functions included “quality control.”  That is one of the functions enumerated in the regulations as work related to the management or general business operations of the bank.

The Takeaway

This case highlights the confusion in the regulations concerning the financial services industry. If these workers are “simply” using established guidelines and standards to make decisions, well, that is not “discretion and independent judgment.” Although quality control is certainly a back-office type business function, this particular exemption still requires employees to use discretion.

That is where these kinds of cases usually go south for the employer.

I have blogged (somewhat incessantly, I admit) about manager FLSA class actions and what the line(s) of defense are for the employer in these cases, and how to defeat these cases. Another case in point. A federal judge has now decertified a collective class, following the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation against the class continuing in this overtime action. The case is entitled McEarchen et al. v. Urban Outfitters Inc., and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of New York.

Retail clothing storeJudge Roslynn R. Mauskopf adopted the Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendations, concluding that there was no plain error in the Report. Moreover, the Managers had not lodged objections to the Report/Recommendations. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein had ruled that there were too many differences in duties, responsibilities and authority among the members of the class to allow the claims to proceed as a collective action.

The Managers stated that they agreed not to object to the Report if the Company gave the Managers more time to file, perhaps, individual lawsuits. The original lawsuit alleged misclassification, i.e. that the Managers did not fit the executive exemption, they were not true managers and therefore were non-exempt under the FLSA. The plaintiffs moved to certify a class of all current/former department Managers at the Company’s 179 stores. The plaintiffs argued that all of the Managers had similar job duties and lacked meaningful discretion. There were notices sent to 1,500 potential opt-ins, following the granting of conditional certification. More than two hundred opted in and several were deposed.

The Magistrate Judge found that there were major differences between the duties and experiences of the opt-in plaintiff and the named plaintiffs. The Judge found that the opt-ins seemed to be exempt, as opposed to the named plaintiffs. The named plaintiffs asserted that they had little say in hiring and firing decisions. To the contrary, many opt-ins “described being active participants in the hiring and firing process,” Judge Orenstein wrote. The named plaintiffs posited that they spent but little time training hourly workers, but many opt-ins testified to a broad range of training responsibilities.

The Takeaway

This is another lesson for employers, not only in these Manager type cases but also for all employers defending almost any kind of FLSA (or state) class/collective action.  Bang away at individual differences in the class. It sure helps if the opt-ins to the class give favorable testimony at the expense of their own self-interest (and wallet). The interesting twist is that the plaintiffs extracted more time for possible plaintiffs to file their own individual cases.

Maybe they know something…

Well, it finally happened. A Texas federal judge struck down the Obama Administration’s proposed changes to the FLSA overtime regulations, which would have made millions of more people eligible for overtime. The Court’s theory was that the U.S. Department of Labor used a salary level test that was excessive in determining whether workers should be exempt from overtime. The case is entitled State of Nevada et al. v. U.S. Department of Labor et al. and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Texas.

The Judge granted summary judgment to the Plano Chamber of Commerce and more than 55 other business groups. These entities had fought the proposed 2016 rule that highly elevated the minimum salary threshold necessary to be deemed exempt under the FLSA “white collar” exemptions, executive, administrative, and professional. The new level would have been more than $47,000 per year ($913 per week). The highly compensated exemption (HCE) would have gone from $100,000 to approximately $134,000.

The Judge opined that the “significant increase” would negate or totally undermine duties test, which is a critical component of the exemption analysis. The Judge stated that, “the department has exceeded its authority and gone too far with the final rule. The department creates a final rule that makes overtime status depend predominately on a minimum salary level, thereby supplanting an analysis of an employee’s job duties.”

U.S. Department of Labor headquarters
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There is another case on this issue pending. The Fifth Circuit is simultaneously considering the government’s appeal of a preliminary injunction Judge Mazzant issued in November 2016, which stopped the rule from taking effect, but a few days before it would have been implemented. The Obama DOL appealed the ruling before the new Administration took over.

The judge noted that if the DOL proposal went through, then more than four million workers currently not eligible for overtime would automatically be eligible under the final rule, although their job duties had not changed. The Judge noted, “because the final rule would exclude so many employees who perform exempt duties, the department fails to carry out Congress’ unambiguous intent.” The Judge cautioned that he was not making any determination on the issue of the DOL’s authority to set a salary threshold.

The new Secretary of Labor, Alex Acosta, has advised lawmakers that the DOL wanted to revise the overtime rule, establishing the salary level somewhere between the “old” level and the very high level set in the Obama-DOL rule. Mr. Acosta stated that level was too harsh on businesses.

The Takeaway

In principle, I agree with the concept that the duties portion of the test is as important as the salary component and raising this salary in this extreme manner was too much for business to bear. I had clients make changes back in November 2016, in anticipation of the rule, and now they are living with (and paying for) those changes because they do not want to penalize their employees. With that said, I do believe the salary level will (ultimately) be raised.

No industry is immune to FLSA collective actions and the energy industry is seeing a significant uptick in these actions. In this regard, a class of workers employed by an oil field services company has just agreed to a $2.1 million deal to settle a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action alleging that the company did not pay them proper overtime wages. The case is entitled Meals v. Keane Frac GP LLC et al., and was filed in federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Oil pump jack and oil tank silhouette
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The employer advised the Court that a settlement had been reached with a class of “frac supervisor I’s” to settle a FLSA collective action, seeking overtime, on a misclassification theory. The agreement recited that both counsel believed the settlement was in the best interests of all the parties, given the costs to be incurred, the risks inherent in litigation, as well as the delays, when placed up against the benefits of the settlement.

The defendant, however, made sure to secure non-admissions language. The papers stated that the “defendant denies and continues to deny all of plaintiff’s allegations in the action. Defendant enters into this agreement expressly disavowing any fault, liability and/or wrongdoing.”

Importantly, there had been a grant of conditional certification in June to a class of current and former “frac supervisor I’s” and other like employees who were employed by the Company in the last three years. The plaintiffs alleged that these alleged supervisors performed primarily manual work, which precluded the application of the exemption. The plaintiffs also claimed that the Company has a policy of deliberately misclassifying these supervisors to save overtime costs (even though they received bonuses). The Complaint alleged that all of these supervisors were similarly situated because they shared common job duties, were all classified as exempt and all performed uncompensated work.

The Takeaway

This was the right move by the employer. Exemption cases are always tough to win—often, the entire class is held to be exempt, or, heaven forbid, non-exempt, especially if common policies apply to the affected workers. The issue now becomes whether to re-classify these workers, i.e. pay them hourly, or enhance their duties so they “evolve” into exempt employees.

A lot easier to re-classify.  A lot less (future) worry and aggravation…

It is difficult to defend a class action based on exemption, which explains why many of these cases (as herein) settle. This is because the employer-defendant is (usually) going to be completely right, or totally wrong. Either the class of workers (especially if the exemption at issue is professional or administrative) will meet the regulatory tests or they will fall short. That is the reason these cases often settle, because the employer does not want to test its theory at an expensive trial.

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Case in point. A judge in California just gave final approval to a 1.5 million settlement to resolve class action allegations that a group of senior artists for a video game giant company were wrongly classified. The case is entitled Lee et al. v. Activision Blizzard Inc. et al., and was filed in Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles.

The Judge approved a settlement in this case, more than two years after the named plaintiff, John Lee, filed a suit alleging that the Company had misclassified the senior artists as exempt, salaried employees to avoid paying overtime. The Court approved the sum of $1.5 million for the class of 128 artists, as well as legal fees of $500,000.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs claimed they had a strong case on the classification issue. The Company maintained that the senior artists were properly classified and it had a basis for potentially wiping out all damages in the case. The Company had garnered several Affidavits from the class members themselves who asserted that they were properly classified. The Company asserted in the motion that “given that the makeup of the 128 member putative class consisted of approximately 80 percent individuals, who continue to be employed by the defendant, it was possible that at trial, any if not all of the currently employed class members might testify that they were properly classified during the class period or that they worked no overtime hours at all.”

The Takeaway

The exemptions at issue were the professional and possibly the administrative. The Company might have been well advised to settle, however, because the professional exemption virtually mandates a long, prolonged course of study in a field recognized as “professional.” The administrative exemption, as I have preached many times, is the most difficult of the white collar exemptions to defend, especially on the issue of discretion vs skills and experience, which may well have been the stumbling block in this case for the Employer.

You know, law firms are not immune from FLSA issues merely because they are law firms and may be allegedly endowed with some superior knowledge of laws. A recent case illustrates this maxim.  The name partner of a Los Angeles firm has been charged with misclassifying his legal secretary as exempt.  She now has won a jury verdict of $80,000 in overtime; her former boss had claimed that she was properly classified as an executive employee. The case is entitled Bernal v. Little PC et al. and was filed in state court in the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles.

Law books and justice scales
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Ms. Bernal alleges that she was promised a salary of $1,000 per week and no evening hours.  Her workload increased but Mr. Little refused to pay her overtime wages.  Her counsel told the jury to disregard Little’s assertion that they had an arrangement to pay the Plaintiff a set salary, because the lawyer explained that her position was not exempt from overtime.

Mr. Little claimed Bernal was exempt as manager, as she directed the work of two or more other employees, was responsible for HR and payroll duties and could establish her own hours and manage her own workload.  The plaintiff’s lawyer took strong issue with those assertions, telling the jury that she was primarily a legal secretary, including the taking of dictation.

The lawyer testified that Ms. Bernal had worked for him before and knew what the hours were and that there was no conversation about her having a set hourly schedule as she claimed.  He also asserted that Ms. Bernal knew it was a “salaried” position; he told the jury that she testified that the initial offer appealed to her because she would be paid for days she did not work.  The secretary countered by claiming that her job was all-consuming, sometimes working twenty-hour days and running personal errands for Little, as well as being required to respond to texts and calls on nights and weekends.

The Takeaway

Merely paying someone a salary does not mean that they could not eligible for overtime.  They must perform the duties required for the executive (or other) exemption.  This person’s job duties did not sound like that.  Nor does fancy title, if she had one, e.g. Office Manager, mean that she managed anything.

(Expensive) lesson learned…