As many will recall, the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) overtime rule, increasing the salary threshold for overtime exemptions at the behest of the Obama administration, was scheduled to take effect on December 1, 2016. Months later, it remains in limbo before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal. And it apparently will remain in limbo for at least several more months.

After publication of the final overtime rule on May 23, 2016, two lawsuits were filed by a coalition of 21 states and a number of business advocacy groups, claiming that the DOL exceeded its rulemaking authority in finalizing the overtime rule. The lawsuits, which were consolidated, sought a variety of relief, including a preliminary injunction blocking the overtime rule from taking effect.

Days before the final rule went into effect, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas granted Plaintiffs’ motion and issued a nationwide preliminary injunction. Prior to President Trump’s inauguration, the Department of Labor appealed the order to the Fifth Circuit. Thereafter, the DOL was granted two extensions of time to consider whether it wished to proceed with the appeal.

The most recent extension was set to expire on May 1, 2017 . Now, the DOL has requested – and the Fifth Circuit has granted – yet another 60-day extension because Secretary of Labor nominee Alexander Acosta has not yet been confirmed. In granting the extension, the Fifth Circuit continued the DOL’s deadline to file its reply brief to June 30, 2017.

This most recent extension will give additional time to the DOL to evaluate its options, which includes abandoning the appeal and any further efforts to implement and enforce the overtime rule. It is important to keep in mind, however, that even though Secretary of Labor Nominee Acosta does not appear to support the Obama administration’s plan to more than double the salary threshold, he has expressed opinions that suggest he would support updating the overtime rule to some degree, possibly increasing the salary threshold to mirror inflation. It is also important to be mindful that certain states, including New York and California, have a higher minimum salary threshold than the current federal requirement of $455 per week. We will continue to monitor and report on this important matter as it develops.

As we previously discussed here, acting on behalf of the Department of Labor (“DOL”), the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) urged
the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to expedite briefing on its interlocutory appeal of a Texas district court’s nationwide preliminary injunction barring implementation and enforcement of the new overtime rule that would double the minimum salary threshold for white-collar exemptions, among other things. The injunction was issued just days before the rule was to go into effect on December 1, 2016.

The DOJ obtained a fast-tracked briefing schedule from the Court of Appeals that would set up the appeal for oral argument and adjudication by January 31, 2017. Now, the DOJ has requested – and obtained – additional time to review and brief the issue that it had sought to fast-track.

Shortly after the inauguration of our new President, the new administration requested a 30-day extension for the DOJ to file its reply brief, to March 2, 2017. The reason for the request was “to allow incoming leadership personnel adequate time to consider the issues.” The Court granted the extension.

The additional time will allow the new administration to continue evaluating its options and the steps necessary to implement whatever route it elects. Among its options would be to abandon the appeal and to abandon efforts to implement and enforce the new rule. We will continue to monitor this important matter as it develops.

The District Court for the Eastern District of Texas has denied the U.S. Department of Labor’s application to stay the case in which the district court enjoined the DOL’s new overtime regulations. The DOL had asked the court for a stay while the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals considered an interlocutory appeal of the injunction.

As wage and hour practitioners know:

  • In May 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that it would implement new regulations increasing the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional overtime exemptions to $47,476 ($913 per week);
  • In September 2016, a group of 21 states filed a Complaint in the Eastern District of Texas challenging the new regulations. A similar lawsuit was filed in the same court by several private industry groups, and those plaintiffs moved for summary judgment; and
  • In November 2016, the district court issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against the new regulations. The district court made a preliminary conclusion that, because the FLSA did not reference any salary thresholds, the DOL had exceeded its authority.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the DOL’s application for interlocutory review, and ordered that briefing be concluded by January 31, 2017.

The DOL then sought a stay of the proceedings before the district court.

In denying the DOL’s motion, the district court stated that the decision to grant or deny a discretionary stay pending an interlocutory appeal depends on: (1) whether the application is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) whether the applicant will be irreparably injured without a stay; (3) whether a stay will substantially injure other parties; and (4) where the public interest lies.

The district court stated that the DOL’s application argued only that the outcome of the case “will likely be controlled in large part by the Fifth Circuit’s decision on appeal.” Because the DOL did not “present a substantial case on the merits,” its application for a stay was denied.

Accordingly, the proceedings before the Fifth Circuit and the district court will proceed concurrently. We will continue to monitor each of these matters, and share any significant developments.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: A Texas federal court ruled that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) does not have the authority to implement new salary thresholds for overtime.

The district judge issued a nationwide preliminary injunction on the DOL’s new rules and the department appealed. The DOL has now asked for an expedited briefing on its appeal to be completed by February 7, followed by oral arguments as soon as possible. But the Trump administration will be in place by then, and that could change the DOL’s position.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

Overtime Clock Faces - Abstract PhotoWe have written more than a few times here about the new Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) overtime rules that were scheduled to go into effect on December 1, 2016, dramatically increasing the salary threshold for white collar exemptions.

Most recently, we wrote about the November 22, 2016 nationwide injunction entered by a federal judge in Texas, enjoining the Department of Labor (“DOL”) from enforcing those new rules on the grounds that the DOL had overstepped its bounds.

The injunction threw the new rules into a state of limbo, as employers and employees alike were left to wonder whether the DOL would appeal that decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Under normal circumstances, one would assume that the DOL would appeal that ruling.  However, normal circumstances do not exist.  With a new President set to be sworn in shortly, and with a new Secretary of Labor presumably to be appointed thereafter, there was much speculation about what the DOL would do.

The question has now been answered – at least for the short term.

On December 1, 2016 – perhaps not coincidentally, the same day the rules were to go into effect – the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed an appeal on behalf of the DOL. 

The DOL has issued a brief statement about its position, which may be found here: https://www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/final2016/litigation.htm

In short, it is the DOL’s position that the salary basis test has been part of the FLSA overtime rules since 1940, and that the new rules were the result of a comprehensive rule-making process that complied with the law.

While the notice of appeal has been filed, it remains difficult to predict whether or how long the appeal will in fact proceed.  Unless the President-elect should indicate otherwise, it is certainly possible that the new Secretary of Labor will pull the plug on the appeal shortly after he or she assumes the role.

We will continue to monitor the case and share any significant developments. In the meantime, it would appear safe to say that employers should feel comfortable that they need not comply with the new rules, and that those who already implemented or announced changes prior to the injunction should seek guidance on how best to proceed if they intend to rescind those changes.

Stop SignWe have written often in the past several months about the new FLSA overtime rules that were scheduled to go into effect in little more than a week, dramatically increasing the salary thresholds for “white collar” exemptions and also providing for automatic increases for those thresholds.

In our most recent piece about the important decisions employers had to make by the effective date of December 1, 2016, careful readers noticed a couple of peculiar words — “barring … a last-minute injunction.”

On November 22, 2016, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Texas entered just such an injunction, enjoining the Department of Labor from implementing the new rules on a nationwide basis.

“The court determines that the state plaintiffs have satisfied all prerequisites for a preliminary injunction,” wrote United States District Court Judge Amos Mazzant III. “The state plaintiffs have established a prima facie case that the Department’s salary level under the final rule and the automatic updating mechanism are without statutory authority.”

The state plaintiffs had argued that the Department of Labor usurped Congress’ authority in establishing new salary thresholds. Finding that the Department had overstepped its bounds, Judge Mazzant wrote, “If Congress intended the salary requirement to supplant the duties test, then Congress and not the department, should make that change.”

The injunction could leave employers in a state of limbo for weeks, months and perhaps longer as injunctions often do not resolve cases and, instead, lead to lengthy appeals. Here, though, the injunction could spell the quick death to the new rules should the Department choose not to appeal the decision in light of the impending Donald Trump presidency. We will continue to monitor this matter as it develops.

To the extent that employers have not already increased exempt employees’ salaries or converted them to non-exempt positions, the injunction will at the very least allow employers to postpone those changes. And, depending on the final resolution of this issue, it is possible they may never need to implement them.

The last-minute injunction puts some employers in a difficult position, though — those that already implemented changes in anticipation of the new rules or that informed employees that they will receive salary increases or will be converted to non-exempt status effective December 1, 2016.

Whether employers can reverse salary increases they have already implemented is an issue that should be addressed carefully with legal guidance.

As for those employers that informed employees of changes that would go into effect on December 1, 2016, they, too, should seek legal guidance as to how to communicate with employees that those announced changes will not go into effect at that time.

While the FLSA rules are now enjoined, employers must now be mindful not only of morale issues that might result from not providing employees with raises that were implemented or announced, but also of potential breach of contract claims.

A group of 21 states (“the States”) has filed a Complaint in the Eastern District of Texas challenging the new regulations from U.S. Department of Labor that re-define the white collar exemptions to the overtime requirements of the FLSA.  The States argue the DOL overstepped its authority by, among other things, establishing a new minimum salary threshold for those exemptions.

Pursuant to the new regulations from the U.S. Department of Labor, effective December 1, 2016:

  • the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemption will effectively double from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $47,476 ($913 per week);
  • “Highly Compensated Employees” (“HCEs”) must earn annual compensation of at least $100,000; and
  • an indexing mechanism will be applied to automatically update the salary threshold and the HCE compensation requirement every three years.

The Complaint challenges each of the new regulations, and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

The Salary Threshold Allegedly Violates the FLSA

The Complaint filed by the States points out that the FLSA itself makes no reference any salary threshold, but rather speaks only to the duties of exempt employees.

Specifically, the plain language of 29 U.S.C. §213 states that the FLSA’s overtime requirements do not apply to “any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity…” The Complaint states that the statute “speaks in terms of ‘activities,’ not salary.”

The new salary threshold would take away the exempt status of millions of executive, administrative and professional employees. On that basis, the Complaint alleges that the new regulations violate the FLSA and are an improper exercise of legislative power by an Executive agency.

The Complaint also alleges that the language of the FLSA does not allow for (i) the salary basis test itself, (ii) the distinct compensation threshold for highly compensated employees or (iii) the indexing mechanism in the new regulations that would automatically update the salary threshold.

The Complaint notes that DOL regulations have provided for a salary threshold at some level since 1940, but suggests that the DOL’s authority to do so was never challenged.

The Tenth Amendment Allegedly Precludes Applying the Regulations to the States

The Complaint further alleges that the new salary threshold violates the Tenth Amendment by allowing the Executive Branch to infringe upon state sovereignty and federalism by dictating the wages that States must pay to their own employees.

The Complaint admits that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the application of the FLSA to the states, but suggests that the issue should be revisited in light of the new regulations and the burdens they impose on the 21 States seeking relief.

Moreover, the Complaint points to the potential for future abuse through the application of a salary threshold to States. Because “there is apparently no ceiling over which DOL cannot set the salary level,” the DOL could raise the salary threshold however it sees fit.  The Complaint therefore contends that the Executive Branch could “deplete State resources, forcing the States to adopt or acquiesce to federal policies, instead of implementing State policies and priorities.”

The New Regulations Allegedly Violate the APA

The Complaint proceeds to contend that (i) the automatic updates to the salary threshold and HCE compensation requirements violate the notice-and-comment requirements of the federal Administrative Procedure Act and the FLSA’s requirement that the white collar exemptions be “defined and delimited from time to time by regulations of the Secretary ….”; and (ii) the new regulations are arbitrary and capricious in violation of the APA.

More than 50 business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation filed a separate lawsuit in the same court and on the same day.  The business groups also contending the new DOL regulations were implemented in violation of the APA.

The States lawsuit alleges some novel and interesting theories to challenge the Department of Labor’s new regulations, and the District Court’s response to these claims bears watching as the effective date of the new regulations draws near.

Michael Kun, co-editor of this blog, has a post on the Hospitality Labor and Employment Law Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “Ninth Circuit Approves DOL Rule Prohibiting ‘Tip Pooling’ for Kitchen Employees Even Where No ‘Tip Credit’ Is Taken.”

Following is an excerpt:

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) permits employers to use “tip credits” to satisfy minimum wage obligations to tipped employees.  Some employers use those “tip credits” to satisfy the minimum wage obligations; some do not.  (And in some states, like California, they cannot do so without running afoul of state minimum wage laws.) …

On February 23, 2016, in Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Assoc. v. Perez, No. 13-25765 (9th Cir. Feb. 23, 2016), a divided Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals … [held] that the DOL in fact has the authority to regulate the “tip pooling” practices of employers even when they do not take tip credits — including prohibiting employers from including kitchen employees in “tip pools.” While confirming that the FLSA permits the use of “tip credits” to fulfill minimum wage requirements, the Court concluded that the DOL was acting within its authority in concluding that employers that establish “tip pools” may only do so when the persons who are included are persons who normally receive tips – and that, as kitchen staff do not normally receive tips, they cannot be included in “tip pools.”

The decision not only appears to be inconsistent with the Ninth Circuit’s own Cumbie decision, but with other courts that have reviewed this same issue. …

Read the full post here.

Practitioners know how difficult it is to obtain an award of fees against the government. However, in an opinion in which the Court states at the outset, “the government here chose to defend the indefensible in an indefensible manner,” the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has awarded attorneys’ fees to an employer in a wage-hour dispute based on the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) bad faith– both in pursuing a legally indefensible case and in the conduct of the litigation.

The case, Gate Guard Services, L.P. v. Perez, 792 F.3d 554 (5th Cir. 2015), is an unusual one But in this case, the government’s conduct was found to be outrageous on two fronts.  The DOL continued to litigate a case long after it became apparent the case was meritless, and it did so in an inappropriately aggressive fashion.

The DOL jumped into the fray when a drinking pal of a DOL investigator, who was inexperienced in classification issues, expressed concern that he had been underpaid by Gate Guard Services, which provided gate attendants for remote drilling sites and treated the attendants as independent contractors.  After interviewing only three witnesses and destroying his original notes, the investigator concluded that the company owed $6 million in back wages, nearly its entire net worth.  Even though there were several violations of the DOL’s internal policy in the conduct of the investigation, the DOL filed suit.

During the course of the ensuing litigation, the government opposed nearly every motion on spurious grounds, even a routine motion to transfer the case to a division where many of the gate attendants and the investigator lived or worked.  During the investigator’s deposition, the DOL’s lead counsel objected 102 times and instructed the witness 18 times not to answer basic questions about his investigation.

To make matters worse for the government, the district court where the case was pending held that gate attendants in another case, with nearly identical facts, were not employees.  The DOL also learned that the Army Corps of Engineers classified its gate attendants as independent contractors.  Gate Guard won summary judgment at the district court level and was also awarded over $565,000 in attorneys’ fees.  Both sides appealed.

The Fifth Circuit did not hesitate to send a message to the DOL and awarded fees for bad faith, noting “[t]he government’s intransigence in spite of its legally deteriorating case, combined with extreme penalty demands and outrageous tactics, together support a bad faith finding.”

While the circumstances presented in this case are certainly unique, it makes clear that employers should not hesitate to seek fees when the government oversteps its bounds—either in pursuing a case that lacks merit or engaging in unethical and spurious litigation tactics.

Wage and Hour Image 3

On August 7, 2015 the Second Circuit held that parties cannot enter into private settlements of Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA” or the “Act”) claims without  the approval of either the district court or the Department of Labor. Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House, Inc., No. 14-299 (2nd Cir. 2015).

Although other circuits are split on the issue of whether pre-suit agreements to settle FLSA claims are enforceable, this is the first appellate decision to address the issue of whether judicial approval is required to terminate an FLSA lawsuit once it has been filed. See Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. US., 679 F. 2d 1350 (11th Cir. 1982); Martin v. Spring Break’83 Productions, LLC, 688 F. 3d 247 (5th Cir. 2012). Despite holding that district courts must approve the settlement, the court expressed no opinion regarding “what the district court must consider in deciding whether to approve the putative settlement.”

Unlike most causes of action, which may be settled merely by filing a stipulation of dismissal, courts apply extra scrutiny to FLSA settlements to prevent workers from waiving the protections of the Act. To ensure workers maintain their rights under the FLSA, courts will only enforce FLSA settlements if the settlement amount is for the full amount claimed, or if less, there is “a bona fide dispute between the parties” regarding the amount owed. See Brooklyn Savings Bank v. O’Neil, 324 13 U.S. 697 (1945) and D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108 (1946).

The court rested its holding on the argument that judicial approval was necessary to ensure that private settlements furthered the policy goals underlying the Act. The concern is that plaintiffs may agree to compromise settlement amounts that do not achieve the goal of deterring employers from violating the Act.

Plaintiffs in need of immediate cash may value an immediate settlement at a discounted amount over the potential for a larger judgment at some future date. Although this resolution may be agreeable to both parties, it does not achieve the goal of preventing employers from deriving a competitive advantage by violating the Act.

In dicta, the decision went on to add that “to prevent abuses by unscrupulous employers, and remedy the disparate bargaining power between employers and employees” courts must scrutinize settlement agreements to ensure “employee protections, even where the employees are represented by counsel.”

Other than seeking court approval of all settlement agreements resolving cases with FLSA claims, it remains to be seen how this decision will be used in litigation. Employers should pay particular attention as to whether judges reserve their role to ensuring that the settlement resolves a bona fide dispute, or whether they instead use their power to second guess plaintiff’s counsel and demand more favorable settlement terms.

A question that remains unanswered is whether the federal courts will defer to a decision of an arbitrator in resolving FLSA claims.