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.

Background

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.)

The Dissent

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.

One of the top stories featured on Employment Law This Week: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reaffirms an employer’s time-rounding practice. A call-center employee in California recently brought a class action lawsuit against his employer for time-rounding practices. The employee claims that the policy caused him to be underpaid by a total of $15 over 13 months. Relying on a California Court of Appeals precedent, the Ninth Circuit found that the company’s facially neutral rounding policy—one that rounds time both up and down—is legal under California law. The employee also argued that he was denied payment for a total of one minute when he logged into call software before he clocked in. The Ninth Circuit found that the de minimis doctrine applied in this case, because identifying a single instance in order to provide payment would create an undue burden on the employer.

View the episode below or read more about this story in a previous blog post.

Clock FaceOn May 2, 2016, the Ninth Circuit issued a published opinion in Corbin v. Time Warner Entertainment-Advance/Newhouse Partnership. The Corbin Court best summarized the action in its opening sentence: “This case turns on $15.02 and one minute.” The “$15.02” represented the wages the plaintiff claimed he lost over a period of time as a result of the company’s neutral time-rounding policy. And the “one minute” represented the amount of off-the-clock time that the plaintiff worked, which the Court held was de minimis and, therefore, not compensable.

Federal and California authorities have found that an employer complies with the law if it has a facially neutral time rounding policy – one that rounds time both up and down – and if, in practice, the policy is also neutral.

In Corbin, there was no dispute that Time Warner had a facially neutral rounding policy. Rather, Corbin argued that rounding was only permissible under circumstances that would create undue burdens on employers.

Following the California Court of Appeal’s decision in See’s Candy Shops, Inc. v. Superior Court, the Ninth Circuit rejected the employee’s argument that rounding violates California law that requires employees to be paid all wages due for each pay period where the employer does not engage in a “‘mini actuarial process at the time of payroll’ and reconcile the rounding with actual time punches.” The Court held that such a view was too short-sighted: “Employers use rounding policies to calculate wages efficiently; sometimes, in any given pay period, employees come out ahead and sometimes they come out behind, but the policy is meant to average out in the long-term.” The Ninth Circuit also found that such an interpretation would render rounding practices useless because “employers would have to ‘un-round’ every employee’s time stamps for every pay period to verify that the rounding policy had benefitted every employee.”

The employee’s records in Corbin demonstrated that sometimes rounding worked in his favor, and sometimes it did not. The Ninth Circuit determined that is exactly how rounding is intended to work and, thus, found that the company’s time-rounding practice was neutral in its application.

Also at issue in the case was the de minimis doctrine, which permits the non-payment of wages when the employer meets a three-prong test where courts are instructed to “consider (1) the practical administrative difficulty of recording the additional time; (2) the aggregate amount of compensable time; and (3) the regularity of the additional work.”

The plaintiff if Corbin – a call center employee – claimed that on one occasion he logged into call software before he clocked in for timekeeping purposes, although at all other times he clocked in before starting the program. The employee claimed that Time Warner should have known about this one-time log-in issue and compensated him for it because it had access to the records. The Ninth Circuit rejected this assertion: “Corbin’s contention that the de minimis doctrine does not apply because [Time Warner] could ascertain the exact log-in/out times by scouring its computer records is baseless; the de minimis doctrine is designed to allow employers to forego just such an arduous task.”

The Ninth Circuit also found that Corbin’s proposed standard would require employers to undermine their policies “prohibiting off-the-clock work by proactively searching out and compensating violations.” And because there was only one minute at issue and it was an irregular practice, the de minimis doctrine applied.

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion reaffirms the long-standing practice of rounding employees’ time so long as it is done in an even-handed manner. The Corbin Court’s opinion also confirms that employers are not required to scavenge through their records to ensure that any off-the-clock work did not occur, and that they need not compensate employees for de minimis time.

In a great many wage-hour complaints alleging unpaid overtime or failure to pay minimum wage, plaintiffs will bring suit without identifying any specific instances in which the plaintiffs ever worked unpaid overtime or worked for a period of time without being paid at least the minimum wage.  The absence of such basic facts plagues many class action and collective action complaints, in particular.  The Ninth Circuit’s recent opinion in Landers v Quality Communications rejects the notion that plaintiffs can survive a motion to dismiss by relying on cookie-cutter allegations.  The Ninth Circuit has made it clear that plaintiffs must plead facts in support of their wage-hour claims.

To provide some context to the Landers decision, the Ninth Circuit stated that before the Supreme Court’s decisions in Ashcroft v. Iqbal and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, a complaint for unpaid minimum wages or overtime wages merely had to allege that the employer failed to pay the employee minimum wages or overtime wages. No other facts were necessary at the pleading stage. After Iqbal and Twombly, which discussed what types of facts must be pled in cases where there is no heightened pleading standard, district courts were split. Some required plaintiffs to approximate the overtime hours worked while others have foregone such a requirement. Until Landers, the Ninth Circuit had not addressed the degree of specificity required to state a claim for failure to pay minimum wages or overtime wages.

In Landers, the Ninth Circuit held that, at a minimum, the plaintiff must allege at least one workweek when he or she worked in excess of 40 hours and was not paid for the excess hours in that workweek, or was not paid minimum wages.  However, the Ninth Circuit stated that it was not imposing a requirement that a plaintiff alleging failure to pay minimum wages or overtime wages must approximate the number of hours worked without compensation.

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Landers is a welcome development for employers.  Although the pleading standard would not seem difficult to meet, forcing plaintiffs to plead some facts may help weed out frivolous lawsuits – and, in the class action and collective action context, it may demonstrate the differences in employees’ claims and circumstances.

by Michael Kun and Kathryn McGuigan

In recent years, the alleged misclassification of employees under California’s wage and hour laws has been a hotly contested issue and the subject of a great many class actions. Faced with several appeals pending before it, the Ninth Circuit has now sought guidance from the California Supreme Court on the outside salesperson and administrative exemption tests as they apply to pharmaceutical sales representatives. Such guidance should prove invaluable to employers in the industry, and to parties to these claims.

In D’Este v. Bayer Corporation, 07-56577 (9th Cir. 2009), a pharmaceutical sales representative brought a class action lawsuit against her employer, claiming that she had been misclassified as an exempt employee and had not been paid overtime or provided meal and rest breaks in compliance with California’s wage and hour laws. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, finding that the employee was exempt under California’s outside salesperson exemption; it declined to reach the question whether she was exempt under the administrative exemption. The employee appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

 D’Este is not the only class action on appeal to the Ninth Circuit on this issue. Three other class actions on appeal before the Ninth Circuit — and four other class actions filed in the Central District of California — all involve the question of whether pharmaceutical sales representatives are exempt under California’s outside salesperson and administrative exemptions.

 In light of the number of actions regarding the classification of pharmaceutical sales representatives, the Ninth Circuit certified the following two questions to the California Supreme Court:

 1. Does a pharmaceutical sales representative qualify as an “outside salesperson” under Industrial Welfare Commission’s (“IWC”) Wage Orders 1-2001 and 4-2001 if the pharmaceutical sales representative spends more than half the working time away from the employer’s place of business and personally interacts with doctors and hospitals on behalf of drug companies for the purpose of increasing individual doctors’ prescriptions of specific drugs?

 2. Is a pharmaceutical sales representative involved in duties and responsibilities that meet the requirements of a person employed in an administrative capacity as defined under IWC Wage Order 4-2001?

 The Ninth Circuit will accept the California Supreme Court’s decisions on these questions.

 The California Supreme Court’s review of these questions should provide employers with a clear understanding of the application of outside salesperson and administrative exemptions from overtime and meal and rest break requirements for pharmaceutical sales representatives employed in California. The Supreme Court’s ruling will provide invaluable guidance to employers in the industry about how to classify these persons going forward, and a clearer understanding to parties already litigating this issue. Should the ruling suggest that these persons normally fall under one or both exemption, litigation of these claims by pharmaceutical sales representatives may end. Should the ruling suggest that these persons normally fall under neither exemption, a new wave of class actions could be expected.