For more than 70 years, the Supreme Court has construed exemptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) narrowly. In A.H. Phillips, Inc. v. Walling, for example, the Court stated that “[t]o extend an exemption to other than those plainly and unmistakably within its terms and spirit is to abuse the interpretative process and to frustrate the announced will of the people.” 324 U.S. 490, 493 (1945). The Supreme Court has restated this rule many times in the intervening years, and the lower courts have followed, citing this principle in virtually every significant case involving overtime exemptions.
On April 2,2018, the Supreme Court issued its highly anticipated ruling in Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro. Marking the second time that the case has gone to the high court, the ruling held that the specific employees at issue—service advisors at an automobile dealership—are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirement. What people will long remember the 5-4 ruling for, however, is not the exempt status of the particular plaintiffs in that case, but rather the Court’s rejection of the principle that courts construe FLSA exemptions narrowly. By removing a heavy judicial thumb from the workers’ side of the scales in FLSA exemption litigation, Encino Motorcars is likely to figure prominently in many pending and future exemption cases.
In one of the law’s lesser-known subsections, FLSA section 13(b)(10)(A) exempts from the federal overtime requirement “any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles, trucks, or farm implements, if he is employed by a nonmanufacturing establishment primarily engaged in the business of selling such vehicles or implements to ultimate purchasers[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(10)(A). In the early 1970s, the U.S. Department of Labor originally interpreted this language as not applying to so-called “service advisors,” whom the Court described as “employees at car dealerships who consult with customers about their servicing needs and sell them servicing solutions.” (Opinion at 1-2.) Courts took a different view, and from 1978 to 2011 the Department accepted the view that service advisors are exempt. (Id. at 2.) In 2011, the Department changed course again, issuing a regulation stating that service advisors are not “salesmen” and thus are not within the scope of the exemption. (Id. at 3.)
In 2012, current and former service advisors sued a California car dealership, asserting that they are non-exempt and entitled to overtime. The dealership moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the section 13(b)(10)(A) exemption applies. The district court agreed and dismissed the case, but on appeal the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. In April 2016, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, concluding in a 6-2 ruling that the Department’s 2011 regulation is invalid and entitled to no deference, and remanding the matter to the Ninth Circuit to consider the meaning of the statutory language without the regulation. (Opinion at 3-4 (discussing Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, 579 U.S. — (2016)).) On remand, the Ninth Circuit again held that the service advisors are not exempt, and the case went back up to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
The meaning of the words in the statute
Noting the parties’ agreement that certain language in the exemption either does not apply or is not at issue, Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, distilled the legal question to whether service advisors are “salesm[e]n . . . primarily engaged in . . . servicing automobiles” for purposes of the statute’s overtime exemption. (Opinion at 5.) The Court began its analysis by observing that “[a] service advisor is obviously a ‘salesman.’” (Id. at 6.) The Court looked to dictionary definitions of “salesman,” concluding that the term means “someone who sells goods or services.” (Id.) The Court stated that “[s]ervice advisors do precisely that.” (Id.)
The Court then held that “[s]ervice advisors are also ‘primarily engaged in . . . servicing automobiles.’” (Opinion at 6.) Once again turning to dictionaries, the Court observed that [t]he word ‘servicing’ in this context can mean either ‘the action of maintaining or repairing a motor vehicle’ or ‘[t]he action of providing a service.’” (Id.) To the Court, “[s]ervice advisors satisfy both definitions. Service advisors are integral to the servicing process.” (Id.) Although they “do not spend most of their time physically repairing automobiles[,]” neither do “partsmen,” another category of employees whom “[a]ll agree . . . are primarily engaged in . . . servicing automobiles.” (Id.) Thus, “the phrase ‘primarily engage in . . . servicing automobiles’ must include some individuals who do not physically repair automobiles themselves”; and the verbiage “applies to partsmen and service advisors alike.” (Id.)
The inapplicability of an arcane rule of statutory construction
The Court then rejected the Ninth Circuit’s use of the so-called “distributive canon,” a principle of statutory construction whereby courts may interpret a statute in a manner other than indicated by its plain language, and instead relate certain words back only to particular words appearing earlier in the statute. Here, the exemption uses the expansive, disjunctive word “or” three times, but the Ninth Circuit declined to read “or” in its usual sense, instead interpreting “any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles, trucks, or farm implements” as meaning “any salesman . . . primarily engaged in selling” and “any . . . partsman or mechanic primarily engaged in . . . servicing[.]” (Opinion at 4, 7.) The Court gave three reasons for declining to apply the distributive canon to FLSA section 13(b)(10)(A): (1) the absence of one-to-one matching, as the Ninth Circuit’s reading requires pairing one category of employees with “selling” but two categories of employees with “servicing”; (2) the possibility, and indeed reasonableness, of construing the statute as written; and (3) the inconsistency of using the narrowing canon in light of the exemption’s overall broad language. (Id. at 8.)
Rejection of the narrow construction rule
The most significant aspect of the Court’s ruling is its rejection of the Ninth Circuit’s use of the “narrow construction” principle for FLSA exemptions:
The Ninth Circuit also invoked the principle that exemptions to the FLSA should be construed narrowly. We reject this principle as a useful guidepost for interpreting the FLSA.
(Opinion at 9 (emphasis added, citation omitted).) The Court observed that “[b]ecause the FLSA gives no ‘textual indication’ that its exemptions should be construed narrowly, ‘there is no reason to give [them] anything other than a fair (rather than a “narrow”) interpretation.’” (Id. (citation omitted).) The Court remarked that “exemptions are as much a part of the FLSA’s purpose as the overtime-pay requirement. We thus have no license to give the exemption anything but a fair reading.” (Id. (citation omitted).)
The Court also rejected the Ninth Circuit’s reliance on a 1966-67 Handbook from the Department, as well as legislative history that was silent on the issue of service advisors. (Opinion at 9-11.)
Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. They disagreed with the Court’s linguistic construction of the exemption, while arguing that the regular schedules worked by service advisors render overtime exemption unnecessary. (Dissent at 3-7.) The dissent rejected the car dealership’s asserted reliance interest and concern for retroactive liability, noting the potential availability of the FLSA’s good faith defense. (Id. at 7-8). Finally, the dissent criticized the Court for rejecting the narrow construction principle for FLSA exemptions “[i]n a single paragraph . . . without even acknowledging that it unsettles more than half a century of our precedent.” (Id. at 9 n.7.)
What The Decision Means For Employers
Most immediately, Encino Motorcars affects car dealerships by concluding that service advisors are exempt from the federal overtime requirement. The decision, however, will reach far more broadly than just this one industry. Since the 1940s, courts grappling with the meaning of ambiguously-worded FLSA exemptions have invoked the narrow construction rule as an often outcome-determinative facet of their decisions. It served as much more than a tie-breaker, instead creating a very strong presumption of non-exempt status unless an employer could demonstrate that an exemption “plainly and unmistakably” applies. In light of Encino Motorcars, that rule no longer has any place in interpreting FLSA exemptions.
What this means for employers is that it should now be easier than before for employers to persuade courts that employees fall within overtime exemptions. Now, employers must merely show that their reading of the exemption is more consistent with the statutory and regulatory text, rather than showing that there is little or no doubt about the matter.
At the same time, courts may find themselves tempted to resist this development, especially when construing exemptions under state law. It would not be surprising, for example, to see some courts begin to construe state-law exemptions differently from their FLSA counterparts, even when the wording of the exemptions is identical.