Fifth Circuit Court in Texas Strikes Down 2016 Overtime Exemption Regulations
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.