Featured on Employment Law This Week:  The Ninth Circuit held that certain auto service advisors were not exempt because their position is not specifically listed in the FLSA auto dealership exemption.

The 9th relied on the principle that such exemptions should be interpreted narrowly. In a 5-4 decision last week, the Supreme Court found no “textual indication” in the FLSA for narrow construction. Applying a “fair interpretation” standard instead, the Court ruled that the exemption applies to service advisors because of the nature of the work.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

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.

In a move allowing increased flexibility for employers and greater opportunity for unpaid interns to gain valuable industry experience, the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently issued Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-2, adopting the “primary beneficiary” test used by several federal appellate courts to determine whether unpaid interns at for-profit employers are employees for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act. If interns are, indeed, deemed employees, they must be paid minimum wage and overtime, and cannot serve as interns without pay. The “primary beneficiary” test adopted by the DOL examines the economic reality of the relationship between the unpaid intern and the employer to determine which party is the primary beneficiary of the relationship. Unlike the DOL’s previous test, the “primary beneficiary” test allows for greater flexibility because no single factor is determinative.

Along with its announcement of this change, the DOL also issued a new Fact Sheet which sets forth the following seven factors that make up the “primary beneficiary” test:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

For more information on the DOL’s adoption of the “primary beneficiary” test and actions employers may want to take given this change, go to our Act Now Advisory on this topic.

As we have discussed previously, in early September the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) withdrew its appeal of last November’s ruling from the Eastern District of Texas preliminarily enjoining the Department’s 2016 Final Rule that, among other things, more than doubled the minimum salary required to satisfy the Fair Labor Standards Act’s executive, administrative, and professional exemptions from $455 per week ($23,660 per year) to $913 per week ($47,476 per year).  The DOL abandoned its appeal in light of the district court’s ruling on August 31, 2017 granting summary judgment and holding that the 2016 increase to the salary level conflicted with the statute and thus was invalid, a ruling that rendered the appeal of the injunction moot.

On October 30, 2017, to the surprise of many observers, the DOL filed a notice of appeal regarding the district court’s summary judgment ruling, taking the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.   Four days later, the DOL filed an unopposed motion asking the Fifth Circuit to stay the appeal in light of the Department’s pending rulemaking to update the salary requirement.  On November 6, 2017, the Fifth Circuit granted the motion, staying the appeal pending the outcome of the new rulemaking.

The DOL’s maneuvers may appear confusing. In short, the district court’s summary judgment ruling causes a certain amount of heartburn for the Department because the court in effect concluded that although the DOL has the authority to require a minimum salary for these exemptions, there is a point beyond which the Department cannot go without having the salary level deemed invalid.  The court did not, however, provide a clear standard for identifying the outer limit of the Department’s authority to impose a salary threshold, and this uncertainty creates confusion and a risk of time-consuming and expensive litigation for the Department — and for employees and employers throughout the country.

By appealing the summary judgment ruling, the DOL preserves the option of challenging the decision rather than simply allowing it to remain on the books as a precedent.  Once the Department completes the rulemaking process and issues an updated salary standard, the likely final move would be for the Department to move to dismiss the litigation and to vacate the district court’s order on the basis that the challenge to the 2016 Final Rule has become moot.  Once the new rule is in place and the district court’s summary judgment ruling is no longer on the books, it will be as though the 2016 Final Rule never happened.

We will keep you posted as this matter develops.

In many industries, sales are subject to ebbs and flows.  Sometimes the fish are biting; sometimes they aren’t.

A common device that employers with commissioned salespeople use to take the edge off of the slow weeks and to ensure compliance with minimum wage and overtime laws is the recoverable draw.  Under such a system, an employee who earns below a certain amount in commissions for a given period of time, often a week, receives an advance of as-yet unearned commissions to bring the employee’s earnings for the period up to a specified level.  Then in the next period, the employees’ commissions pay off the draw balance before the employee receives further payouts of commissions.  Occasionally, employees challenge these recoverable draw pay systems.

In Stein v. hhgregg, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit considered one such draw system.  The employer, a retail seller of appliances, furniture, and electronics at more than 220 stores nationwide, paid its salespeople entirely in commissions.  In weeks where an employee worked 40 or fewer hours and did not earn commissions sufficient to cover minimum wage for the week, the employee would receive a draw against future commissions sufficient to bring the employee’s earnings for the week up to minimum wage.  In weeks where the employee worked more than 40 hours, and did not earn sufficient commissions to cover one and a half times the minimum wage, the employee would receive a draw against future commissions sufficient to bring the employee’s earnings for the week up to one and a half times the minimum wage.  The purpose of this pay structure was, among other things, to achieve compliance with the overtime exemption in section 7(i) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) for certain commissioned employees of a retail or service establishment.  The company’s policy also provided that upon termination of employment, an employee will immediately pay the company any unpaid draw balance.

Two employees of a store in Ohio brought a putative nationwide collective action under the FLSA, as well as a putative state law class action asserting unjust enrichment with respect to the company’s more than twenty-five locations in Ohio.  They alleged failure to pay the minimum wage or overtime based on the theory that offsetting draw payments against future commissions amounted to an improper kick-back of wages to the employer.  They also claimed that the employer did not pay for certain non-sales activities and encouraged employees to work off the clock.  The complaint did not specifically allege that the two named plaintiffs worked off the clock or that the one plaintiff who was a former employee had to repay a draw balance when his employment ended.  The district court granted the company’s motion to dismiss, concluding that there was no FLSA violation and declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims.

On appeal, after reviewing extensive interpretive guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Sixth Circuit rejected the plaintiffs’ central theory that a recoverable draw amounts to an impermissible wage kick-back.  To the court, the key consideration is that under the pay system at issue, “deductions will be made from wages not delivered, that is, from future earned commissions that have not yet been paid.”  Because the company does not recover wages already “delivered to the employee,” the court “h[e]ld that this practice does not violate the ‘free and clear’ regulation.  See 29 C.F.R. § 531.35 (emphasis added).”  (Op. at 9-10.)

The divided panel reversed, however, in certain other respects.

First, the court determined that the FLSA section 7(i) overtime exemption does not apply because although the company’s pay plan provides for a minimum rate equal to one and one half times the minimum wage for any week where an employee works more than 40 hours, the exemption technically requires, among other things, a rate that is more than one and a half times the minimum wage.  (Note: federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and 1.5 times that rate is $10.875 per hour.  Strictly speaking, a wage of $10.875 does not satisfy this aspect of the exemption, whereas $10.88 per hour does.  Perhaps on remand it will turn out that the company actually paid $10.88 per hour rather than $10.875, as it would be very unusual for an employer to use a pay rate that does not round up to the nearest cent.)

Second, the panel majority held that the company’s policy of requiring repayment of a draw balance upon termination of employment violated the FLSA as an improper kick-back.  This part of the decision is interesting because the majority parted ways with the dissenting judge and the district court over the issue of policy versus practice.  The complaint did not suggest that either named plaintiff actually paid back any draw balance, and at oral argument it became clear that the company never enforced that policy and, in fact, had eliminated the repayment policy during the litigation.  The dissenting judge, like the district court before him, believed that because the company had never applied the policy to the named plaintiffs, the policy would not support a claim for relief.  The majority, however, took a more expansive approach to the matter.  “Incurring a debt, or even believing that one has incurred a debt, has far-reaching practical implications for individuals.  It could affect the way an individual saves money or applies for loans.  An individual might feel obligated to report that debt when filling out job applications, credit applications, court documents, or other financial records that require self-reporting of existing liabilities.”  (Op. at 15.)  In short, the court arguably opened the door to allowing plaintiffs to bring FLSA claims even where they have suffered no injury cognizable under the FLSA, so long as the policy they challenge could potentially cause them other types of consequential damages beyond those covered by the FLSA.  This aspect of the ruling appears to be a first of its kind in FLSA jurisprudence.

Third, the panel majority concluded that the plaintiffs adequately alleged minimum wage and overtime violations based on the assertions regarding the company’s knowledge and encouragement of working off the clock.  Although the dissent pointed out that the complaint contained no allegation that either named plaintiff actually suffered a minimum wage or overtime violation as a result of working off the clock, the majority focused on the alleged practice, rather than its specific application to the named plaintiffs, determining that “Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to support a claim that this practice violates the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the FLSA.”  (Op. at 19.)

This decision provides several lessons for employers:

  • Generally speaking, the FLSA allows for the concept of a recoverable draw against commissions.  Recovering a draw against future commissions is not automatically an impermissible wage kick-back.  (Note that there may be certain restrictions under state law, and under some conditions a recoverable draw may violate the FLSA.)
  • When relying on the FLSA section 7(i) exemption, ensure that the policy is clear that an employee will receive more than one and a half times the federal minimum wage for any workweek in which the employer will claim the exemption.
  • Closely review any policies regarding recovery of draw payments (or, indeed, any other types of payments) upon an employee’s termination.  Such policies are often subject to challenge, and they can serve as a trigger for claims by demanding a payment right at the time when a departing employee may cease to have an interest in maintaining a positive relationship with an employer.
  • Be very careful about policies or practices that may arguably encourage employees to work off the clock.  Employers should have clear written policies prohibiting employees from working off the clock, and employees and supervisors should receive periodic training on those policies.

A year ago, employers across the country prepared for the implementation of a new overtime rule that would dramatically increase the salary threshold for white-collar exemptions, on the understanding that the new rule would soon go into effect “unless something dramatic happens,” a phrase we and others used repeatedly.

And, of course, something dramatic did happen—a preliminary injunction, followed by a lengthy appeal, which itself took more left turns following the U.S. presidential election than a driver in a NASCAR race. The effect was to put employers in a constant holding pattern as they were left to speculate whether and when the rule would ever go into effect.

The current status of the overtime rule is but one of several prominent issues to reckon with as wage and hour issues, investigations, and litigation remain as prevalent as they have ever been.

The articles in this edition of Take 5 include the following:

  1. The Status of the Department of Labor’s 2016 Overtime Rule
  2. Recent Developments Regarding Tip Pooling
  3. Mandatory Class Action Waivers in Employment Agreements: Is a Final Answer Forthcoming?
  4. “Time Rounding”: The Next Wave of Class and Collective Actions
  5. The Department of Labor, Congress, and the Courts Wrestle with the Definition of “Employee”

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

As noted in earlier postings, in March of this year, a federal judge in New York handed Chipotle Mexican Grill a significant victory, denying a request by salaried management apprentices alleging misclassification as exempt from overtime to certify claims for class action treatment under the laws of six states, as well as granting Chipotle’s motion to decertify an opt-in class of 516 apprentices under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  The plaintiffs then sought—and in July 2017 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted—a discretionary interlocutory appeal of the ruling concerning the six state-law putative classes, allowing the plaintiffs to obtain immediate review of that decision under Rule 23(f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure rather than waiting until after final judgment in the case to pursue an appeal as of right.

The plaintiffs also asked the district court for permission to appeal the order decertifying the FLSA collective action.  Under the pertinent statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), a district court may certify a non-final ruling for immediate appeal if the “order involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and … an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation[.]”  The plaintiffs argued that “a conflict exists in this Circuit between Rule 23 standards for class certification and FLSA Section [16(b)] standards for certification of a collective action” and that the court’s rulings regarding the FLSA and the state-law classes reflect uncertainty regarding the differences, if any, between the class certification standard and the FLSA decertification standard.

On September 25, 2017, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for an interlocutory appeal.  Although the court “disagrees with Plaintiffs’ argument that there is a ‘rift’ between” those standards, the court nevertheless concluded that the “Plaintiffs’ assertions do point to controlling questions of law which may have substantial grounds for a difference of opinion.”  (Order at 2.)  The court emphasized that “[t]he Second Circuit will review this Court’s Rule 23 class certification decision pursuant to Rule 23(f)” but that this review “would not likely encompass the portion of this Court’s decision decertifying the . . . collective action.”  (Id.)  Because “Plaintiffs are adamant that the two standards need elucidation and that this Court erred in applying the standards, it seems proper to grant Section 1292(b) relief in order for the Circuit to review the entire” ruling—i.e., both the FLSA and the state-law class aspects of the decision—and thereby “avoid the possibility of conflicting decisions on Plaintiffs’ class motions, promote judicial efficiency, and avoid piecemeal appellate litigation.”  (Id.)  The court also remarked that “the Second Circuit has recognized that class certification decisions have the potential to materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation which the Second Circuit has held may warrant Section 1292(b) relief.”  (Id. at 3.)

Stepping back from the specific wording of the court’s decision, the ruling reflects a pragmatic approach to the matter: because the Second Circuit has already decided to take up the Rule 23 class certification issue in the case, there is no real harm in allowing the appellate court the opportunity to decide whether it also wants to address the FLSA decertification issue at the same time.  The district court’s decision certifying the matter for interlocutory appeal does not require the Second Circuit to hear the full case at this time; instead, it authorizes the plaintiffs to proceed with a petition for permission to that court to appeal the decertification order.

It remains to be seen to what extent this court and other courts will apply the actual verbiage of this decision even-handedly when employers seek review of orders granting class certification or conditionally certifying FLSA collective actions.  Will being “adamant” that the law needs “elucidation” and that the court “erred” features of nearly every employer-side request for interlocutory review—or the “potential” for class certification decisions “to materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation” similarly lead to interlocutory review when employers make comparable requests?  Stay tuned for further developments.

On September 5, 2017, the Department of Labor filed with the Fifth Circuit an unopposed motion asking the court to dismiss its appeal of the nationwide preliminary injunction ruling issued last November by a Judge Amos Mazzant in the Eastern District of Texas.  The motion states that DOL’s appeal is moot in light of Judge Mazzant’s entry of final judgment on August 31, 2017.  Barring any unusual further developments, we anticipate that the Fifth Circuit will dismiss the appeal promptly.

By withdrawing the appeal, the Department is signaling that it intends to abandon the 2016 Final rule and, instead, to proceed with a new rulemaking in line with the Request for Information (“RFI”) the Department issued on July 26, 2017.  That RFI seeks public input regarding what salary level or levels, if any, the Department should use in place of the 2016 figures in order to update the $455 weekly / $23,660 annual salary requirement for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions implemented in the Department’s 2004 rulemaking, as well as the $100,000 annual compensation threshold for the highly-compensated variant of these exemptions.

The comment period for the RFI currently ends on September 25, 2017.  To date, regulations.gov has received more than 138,000 comments in response to the RFI, though most of the comments appear to be identical submissions by numerous different commenters, as is common for this type of rulemaking.  Watch for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking announcing a new salary level for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions in the next few months.

 

Since last November, much of the discussion regarding the Obama-era overtime regulations that, among other things, more than doubled the minimum salary threshold for executive, administrative, and professional employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) has focused on the Department of Labor’s appeal of the nationwide preliminary injunction barring implementation and enforcement of the rule.

While everyone is awaiting the oral argument before the Fifth Circuit, currently scheduled for October 3, 2017, Judge Amos Mazzant of the Eastern District of Texas once again issued a bold ruling sure to grab the public’s attention.

On August 31, 2017, Judge Mazzant granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs in the two consolidated cases challenging the overtime rule, holding that the salary level the Department selected in 2016 conflicts with the FLSA, Nevada v. U.S. Department of Labor and Plano Chamber of Commerce, E.D. Tex. No. 4:16-CV-731.

After dealing with preliminary procedural issues including standing, ripeness, and the applicability of the FLSA to the States, Judge Mazzant focused on the substance of the 2016 rule.  Applying the legal framework set forth in Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-43 (1984), the Court determined that the statutory language establishing the exemptions, section 13(a)(1) of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1), “is unambiguous because the plain meanings of the words in the statute indicate Congress’s intent for employees doing ‘bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity’ duties to be exempt from overtime pay.”  (Slip Op. at 13.)

In the Court’s words, “the Department does not have the authority to use a salary-level test that will effectively eliminate the duties test as prescribed by” the FLSA.  (Slip Op. at 14.)  “Nor does the Department have the authority to categorically exclude those who perform ‘bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity’ duties based on salary level alone.”  (Id.)

In short, “[t]he updated salary-level test under the Final Rule does not give effect to Congress’s unambiguous intent.”  (Slip Op. at 14.)  The Court noted that “[t]he Department estimates 4.2 million workers currently ineligible for overtime, and who fall below the minimum salary level, will automatically become eligible under the Final Rule without a change to their duties.”  (Id. at 16.)

The Court held that “the Department’s Final Rule is not ‘based on a permissible construction’ of Section 213(a)(1)” because by “doubl[ing] the previous minimum salary level” the regulation “eliminates a consideration of whether an employee performs ‘bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity’ duties.”  (Slip Op. at 16-17.)  For Judge Mazzant, “[t]he Department has exceeded its authority and gone too far with the Final Rule.  Nothing in Section 213(a)(1) allows the Department to make salary rather than an employee’s duties determinative of whether” an employee “should be exempt from overtime pay.  Accordingly, the Final Rule is not a reasonable interpretation of Section 213(a)(1) and thus is not entitled to Chevron deference.”  (Id. at 17.)

The Court also struck down the regulation’s mechanism for automatically updating the minimum salary threshold every three years.  (Slip Op. at 17.)

In a portion of the decision that may have a direct effect on the pending appeal, the Court “acknowledges its injunction order might have been confusing” insofar as some have read that decision as “invalidat[ing] all versions of the salary-level test that the Department has used for the last seventy-five years.”  (Slip Op. at 4 n.1.)

The Court clarified that “the Department has the authority to implement a salary-level test” and that the summary judgment ruling “is not making any assessments regarding the general lawfulness of the salary-level test or the Department’s authority to implement such a test.  Instead, the Court is evaluating only the salary-level test as amended by the Department’s Final Rule, which is invalid under both steps of Chevron.”  (Id. at 13 n.5.)

As a result of Judge Mazzant’s ruling, the pending appeal may be moot.  The Department’s reply brief before the Fifth Circuit expressly disavowed a defense of the salary level selected in the Final Rule, instead asking the Fifth Circuit to rule only on the question of whether the Department has the authority to implement a salary-level test at all.  Judge Mazzant’s decision acknowledges that the Department has that authority, which appears to address the Department’s concern. In light of the decision, the Department may well withdraw its appeal.

We have previously written in this space about the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, holding that time spent awaiting bag checks was not compensable time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). But is such time compensable under California law, which differs from the FLSA in some regards? The critical difference between the FLSA and California laws is that California law requires that employees be paid for all time when they are “subject to the control of the employer” or for all time that they are “suffered or permitted to work.” And, not surprisingly, plaintiffs’ lawyers in California have argued that employees are “subject to the control of the employer” and “suffered” to work while they wait for and participate in bag checks or security screenings.

Faced with this issue, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has turned to the California Supreme Court for guidance, as it has done on several other wage hour issues in recent years. The case before the Ninth Circuit is Frlekin v. Apple, Inc., a case about which we have written previously. In Frlekin, the district court entered summary judgment in favor of Apple with regard to the compensability of bag check time. Granting summary judgment to Apple, the Court concluded that the time was not “hours worked” because the searches were peripheral to the employees’ job duties and could be avoided if the employees chose not to bring bags to work.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit essentially threw up its hands, concluding that it did not have enough guidance on whether such time would be compensable under California law. Accordingly, it certified to the California Supreme Court the following question:

Is time spent on the employer’s premises waiting for, and undergoing, required exit searches of packages or bags voluntarily brought to work purely for personal convenience by employees compensable as “hours worked” within the meaning of California Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order No. 7?

In doing so, the Court recognized that California law differs in some respects from federal law on whether such time is compensable. The Court opined that the case seems to fall somewhere between decisions focusing on whether an employee has the ability to avoid the time, which could apply here because the employees have the option of avoiding a search by not bringing a bag to work in the first place, and decisions focusing on the control the employer exerts over the employees, which could apply here because the employees are under the employer’s control in the workplace.

As the Court noted, “[o]nce an employee has crossed the threshold of a work site where valuable goods are stored, an employer’s significant interest in preventing theft arises.” In light of the benefit to the employer in avoiding shrinkage, “[i]t is unclear . . . whether, in the context of on-site time during which an employee’s actions and movements are compelled, the antecedent choice of the employee obviates the compensation requirement.”  The Court suggested that the answer may turn on whether “as a practical matter” employees do not truly have the option of not bringing a bag to work.

Time will tell how the California Supreme Court elects to answer this question. It will likely take at least a year, if not substantially longer, for the Court to issue a ruling. In the meantime, employers in California should review their security practices and consider whether options exist to devise practices that obviate these concerns or at least reduce the associated risk.