In a much anticipated filing with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal in State of Nevada, et a. v. United States Department of Labor, et al, the United States Department of Labor has made clear that it is not defending the Obama Administration’s overtime rule that would more than double the threshold for employees to qualify for most overtime exemptions. However, the Department has taken up the appeal filed by the previous Administration to reverse the preliminary injunction issued blocking implementation of the rule, requesting that the Court overturn as erroneous the Eastern District of Texas’ finding, and reaffirm the Department’s authority to establish a salary level test. And the Department has requested that the Court not address the validity of the specific salary level set by the 2016 final rule because the Department intends to revisit the salary level threshold through new rulemaking.

The litigation stems from action taken by the Department in May 2016 to issue a final rule that would have increased the minimum salary threshold for most overtime exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) from $23,660 per year to $47,476 per year. The rule was scheduled to become effective on December 1, 2016, but a federal judge issued a temporary injunction blocking its implementation just days beforehand.

Section 13(a) of the FLSA exempts from the Act’s minimum wage and overtime pay requirements “any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional [(“EAP”)] capacity * * * [specifically providing,] as such terms are defined and delimited from time to time by regulations of the Secretary [of Labor].” 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). To be subject to this exemption, a worker must (1) be paid on a salary basis; (2) earn a specified salary level; and (3) satisfy a duties test.  In enjoining the 2016 rule, the District Court for the Eastern District of Texas reasoned that the salary-level component of this three-part test is unlawful, concluding that “Congress defined the EAP exemption with regard to duties, which does not include a minimum salary level,” and that the statute “does not grant the Department the authority to utilize a salary-level test.”

In seeking reversal of the preliminary injunction, the Department has argued that the Fifth Circuit expressly rejected the claim that the salary-level test is unlawful in Wirtz v. Mississippi Publishers Corp. In Wirtz, the Court reasoned that “[t]he statute gives the Secretary broad latitude to ‘define and delimit’ the meaning of the term ‘bona fide executive * * * capacity,” and he rejected the contention that “the minimum salary requirement is arbitrary or capricious.”  Further, the Department argues that every circuit to consider the issue has upheld the salary-level test as a permissible component of the EAP regulations.

By many accounts, the Department’s recently-appointed Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta, has made clear that he does not think the salary level should be at $47,476 per year, but rather set at a more reasonable level between $30,000 and $35,000 per year. While Secretary Acosta may disagree with the salary level of the 2016 rule, the Department’s brief seems to make clear that he wants to ensure that he has the authority to set any salary threshold.

In issuing the preliminary injunction, the District Court did not address the validity of the salary level threshold set by the 2016 rule. Because the injunction rested on the legal conclusion that the Department lacks authority to set a salary level, it may be reversed on the ground that the legal ruling was erroneous. As a result, by requesting that the Fifth Circuit not address the validity of the salary level set by the 2016 rule, should the Court reverse the preliminary injunction without ruling on the salary level’s validity, it is unclear whether the 2016 rule will immediately go into effect pending new rulemaking. Employers need to stay tuned.

When an employer pays the minimum wage (or more) instead of taking the tip credit, who owns any tips – the employer or the employee? In Marlow v. The New Food Guy, Inc., No. 16-1134 (10th Cir. June 30, 2017), the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held they belong to the employer, who presumably can then either keep them or distribute them in whole or part to employees as it sees fit. This directly conflicts with the Ninth Circuit’s decision last year in Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Ass’n v. Perez, 816 F.3d 1080, 1086-89 (9th Cir. 2016), pet for cert. filed, No. 16-920 (Jan. 19, 2017) and likely sets up a showdown this fall in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The plaintiff in Marlow, who was paid $12 per hour, alleged her employer was obligated to turn over to her a share of all tips paid by catering customers. The Tenth Circuit first held that the statutory language of 29 U.S.C. §203(m), which allows employers the option of paying a reduced hourly wage of $2.13 so long as employees receive enough tips to bring them to the current federal minimum of $7.25, does not apply when the employer pays the full minimum wage, and thus the plaintiff had no claim to any tips. In this regard the Court followed the 2010 decision in Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc., 596 F.3d 577 (9th Cir. 2010), as well as a number of cited district court cases.

Crucially, the Court went on to hold that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) had no authority to promulgate its post-Woody Woo regulation, 76 Fed. Reg. 18,855 (April 5, 2011), amending 29 C.F.R. §531.52, which, contrary to Woody Woo, states that tips are the property of the employee whether or not the employer takes the tip credit under section 2013(m). In so doing, it held that although agencies may promulgate rules to fill “ambiguities” or “gaps” in statutes, they cannot regulate when there is no ambiguity or gap that the agency was authorized to fill. It then found (1) there were no “ambiguities” in the statute that needed to be filled, as the statute clearly only applied when an employer sought to use the tip credit; (2) there were no undefined terms in the statute; and (3) there was no statutory directive to regulate the ownership of tips when the employer is not taking the tip credit. In so doing, the Tenth Circuit expressly rejected the Ninth Circuit’s decision last year in Oregon Restaurant, which held that the DOL had the discretion to issue the regulation precisely because the statute was silent on the subject.

Notably, the Supreme Court has four times extended the time for DOL to file its opposition to the petition for certiorari in Oregon Restaurant, most recently on June 30 granting an extension until September 8, 2017. It appears the current DOL may not yet be not sure what position to take as to the validity of its Obama-era regulation. Marlow’s direct conflict with Oregon Restaurant increases the likelihood that either DOL may choose not to defend the regulation or that the Supreme Court will grant review to resolve the conflict when it returns in October.

In a move likely to impact employers in a variety of industries, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced on June 7, 2017 that the Department of Labor has withdrawn the Administrator’s Interpretations (“AIs”) on independent contractor status and joint employment, which had been issued in 2015 and 2016, respectively, during the tenure of former President Barack Obama.

The DOL advised that the withdrawal of the two AIs “does not change the legal responsibilities of employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act . . . , as reflected in the department’s long-standing regulations and case law.” As discussed below, however, this announcement may reflect both a change in the DOL’s enforcement priorities going forward, and a return to the traditional standards regarding independent contractor and joint employment status that had been relied on by federal courts prior to the issuance of the AIs.

Independent Contractor Status

In determining whether a worker is properly classified as an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), courts have historically relied on the six-factor “economic realities test,” which considered: (1) the extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business; (2) the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss; (3) the nature and extent of the worker’s investment in his/her business; (4) whether the work performed requires special skills and initiative; (5) the permanency of the relationship; and (6) the degree of control exercised or retained by the employer. While no single factor was meant to be determinative, courts typically placed primary emphasis on the degree of control exercised by the putative employer.

Under the Obama administration, the DOL increased its emphasis on the potential misclassification of workers as independent contractors. As part of this initiative, the agency issued Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2015-1 on July 15, 2015.  While this guidance nominally reaffirmed DOL’s support for use of the “economic realities test” to determine independent contractor status, it reflected a far more aggressive interpretation of several of the six “economic realities” factors than that historically used by courts, and emphasized the agency’s position that most workers should be classified as employees under the FLSA.

The 2015 AI rejected courts’ historical emphasis on the “control” factor, and focused instead on workers’ entrepreneurial activities, and whether they were “economically dependent” on the putative employer or actually in business for themselves. For example, while courts had merely considered whether a worker had an opportunity for profit or loss, the AI emphasized that the critical inquiry should be whether the worker had the ability to make decisions and use his/her managerial skill and initiative to affect the opportunity for profit or loss.  Similarly, while courts focused on the nature and extent of a worker’s investment in his/her business, the AI stated that a worker’s investment must be significant in magnitude when compared to the employer’s investment in its overall business, in order for the worker to properly be classified as an independent businessperson.  The AI further indicated that courts had been focusing on the wrong criteria when evaluating whether workers possessed “special skills,” stating that only business skills, judgment, and initiative, not specialized technical skills, were relevant to the independent contractor inquiry.

With the withdrawal of the 2015 AI, one may reasonably assume that the DOL has chosen to reject this more aggressive interpretation of the “economic realities test,” and return to the traditional independent contractor analysis used by courts before the AI was issued. If this is the case, employers may expect to see a decreased emphasis on workers’ entrepreneurial activities in DOL enforcement proceedings, and a return to the previous emphasis on the degree of control exerted by the putative employer over workers.

It remains to be seen whether this withdrawal indicates that the current administration views potential misclassification of independent contractors as less of a priority than the previous administration did. A key barometer will be the level of DOL activity in agency audits or enforcement actions related to independent contractor status.  Any change in the DOL’s focus, however, will likely not impact the spread of misclassification litigation (including class and collective actions), which has continued to increase in recent years.

Joint Employment

With the recent growth of the “fissured workplace” or “gig economy,” the Obama administration also directed significant attention to the concept of joint employment.  In light of this development, the former Administrator of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division issued Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2016-1 on January 20, 2016, to clarify DOL’s position on the increasing number of circumstances under which two or more entities may be deemed joint employers.

In its August 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., the National Labor Relations Board expanded the concept of joint employment under the National Labor Relations Act, holding that two entities may be joint employers if one exercises either direct or indirect control over the terms and conditions of the other’s employees or reserves the right to do so.  The 2016 AI similarly expanded the circumstances under which the DOL would deem two entities to be joint employers under the FLSA.

For the first time, the AI differentiated between two different types of joint employment. The existing joint employment regulations were deemed to apply to “horizontal joint employment,” a situation where a worker has an employment relationship with two or more related or commonly owned business entities.  “Vertical joint employment,” on the other hand, would exist where an individual performed work for an intermediary employer, but was also economically dependent on another employer, such as a staffing agency.  The AI stated that, in horizontal joint employment scenarios, the DOL would apply the FLSA regulations to assess whether a joint employment relationship existed between the two business entities.  In a vertical joint employment scenario, however, DOL would focus on the relationship between the worker and each business entity, applying the “economic realities test” to determine whether the worker was economically dependent on the potential joint employer(s).

The AI made it clear that the purpose of this revised analysis was to expand the number of businesses deemed employers under the FLSA, stating that “[t]he concept of joint employment, like employment generally, should be defined expansively under the FLSA . . . .” This would, in turn, increase the number of entities potentially liable for wage and hour violations, allowing employees and the DOL to pursue claims against multiple potential employers simultaneously.

With the withdrawal of the 2016 AI, presumably the DOL has chosen to reject the more expansive horizontal/vertical joint employment analysis, and the agency’s stated intent to rely on the “economic realities test” in the joint employment context. Instead, the agency will likely rely on the existing regulations regarding joint employment, which state that a joint employment relationship may exist where: (1) there is an arrangement between employers to share an employee’s services; (2) one employer is acting directly or indirectly in the interest of the other employer(s) in relation to an employee; or (3) multiple employers are not completely disassociated with respect to the employment of a particular employee, and may be deemed to share direct or indirect control of the employee by virtue of the fact that one employer controls, is controlled by, or is under common control with the other employer(s).

Similarly, as with the independent contractor scenario, the DOL’s withdrawal of the 2016 AI may reflect a change in DOL’s enforcement priorities with regard to joint employment. As noted above, however, any such change in administrative priorities will likely not affect the scope of private litigation in this area.

Impact on Employers

While the DOL’s action does not impact employers’ legal responsibilities under the FLSA, this change presumably reflects a reversion to the traditional independent contractor and joint employment standards that were in effect prior to the issuance of the AIs. The withdrawal of the AIs may reflect a shift in the DOL’s enforcement priorities, but private litigation regarding independent contractor and joint employment status remains prevalent.

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.