2d. Cir.: Employee Is Not Professionally Exempt Unless His Work Requires Knowledge Customarily Acquired After A Prolonged Course Of Specialized, Intellectual Instruction And Study

Young v. Cooper Cameron Corp.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held on summary judgment that, as a matter of law, plaintiff, a “Product Design Specialist,” was not subject to the “professional exemption” to the overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Defendant appealed and the Second Circuit affirmed, holding that an employee is not an exempt professional unless his work requires knowledge that is customarily acquired after a prolonged course of specialized, intellectual instruction and study.

Describing the relevant facts and the holding below, the Court stated, “Young is a high school graduate. He enrolled in some courses at various universities, but did not obtain a degree. Before he was hired by Cameron, he worked for 20 years in the engineering field as a draftsman, detailer, and designer. He was a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, a membership that required the recommendation of three engineers. For three of the 20 years, Young worked with what are known as hydraulic power units (“HPUs”).

In the spring of 2001, Young applied for a job with Cameron, and he was offered the position of Mechanical Designer in the HPU group. This position paid an hourly wage of $26 and was classified as non-exempt under the FLSA. Young, seeking higher pay, declined.

Soon after, Young met again with Cameron. This time, Cameron offered to hire him as a PDS II-a position that Cameron had determined, through multiple internal and external analyses, was exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions. This job paid an annual salary of $62,000 (an effective hourly wage of $29.81). Applicants were required to have twelve years of relevant experience; but no particular kind or amount of education was required, and no PDS II had a college degree. Young accepted Cameron’s offer on July 23, 2001, understanding that the position was exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions. For his three-year tenure at Cameron, Young worked as a PDS II in the HPU group.

HPUs contain fluid under pressure for use in connection with oil drilling rigs. They are large and complex, and they are subject to a variety of industry standards, codes, and government specifications. Young was the principal person in charge of drafting plans for HPUs. This work required depth of knowledge and experience, and entailed considerable responsibility and discretion. For example, Young assimilated layers and types of specifications into a safe, functional, and serviceable design that met consumer demands, engineering requirements, and industry standards. Young personally selected various structural components of the HPU and modified certain specifications to account for new technology. In these ways, Young operated at the center of both the conceptual and physical processes of HPU creation and development.

On August 2, 2004, after losing his job in a reduction-in-force, Young sued Cameron in federal court, alleging that Cameron had improperly and willfully classified him as an exempt professional. The district court, adopting a report and recommendation from the magistrate judge (Gorenstein, M.J.), granted partial summary judgment to Young on the exemption issue. The court held as a matter of law that the work of a PDS II is ‘not of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study.’ “

Affirming the lower Court’s Order finding Plaintiff not subject to the professional exemption, the Court stated:

“The typical symbol of the professional training and the best prima facie evidence of its possession is, of course, the appropriate academic degree, and in these professions an advanced academic degree is a standard (if not universal) prerequisite.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(e)(1). So it is not the case that “anyone employed in the field of … engineering … will qualify for exemption as a professional employee by virtue of such employment.” Id. § 541.308(a). At the same time, “the exemption of [an] individual depends upon his duties and other qualifications.” Id. “The field of ‘engineering’ has many persons with ‘engineer’ titles, who are not professional engineers, as well as many who are trained in the engineering profession, but are actually working as trainees, junior engineers, or draftsmen.” Id. § 541.308(b). Thus “technical specialists must be more than highly skilled technicians” to be eligible for the professional exemption. Id. § 541.301(e)(2); see also id. (“The professional person … attains his status after a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study.”).

As the Secretary interprets the regulations, a three-part test determines whether an employee has the type of knowledge sufficient to qualify as an exempt professional. First, the employee’s “knowledge must be of an advanced type … generally speaking, it must be knowledge which cannot be attained at the high school level.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(b). Second, the knowledge must be in a field of science or learning. Id. § 541.301(c). Third, the knowledge “must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study.” Id. § 541.301(d). The word “customarily” is key:

The word ‘customarily’ implies that in the vast majority of cases the specific academic training is a prerequisite for entrance into the profession. It makes the exemption available to the occasional lawyer who has not gone to law school, or the occasional chemist who is not the possessor of a degree in chemistry, etc., but it does not include the members of such quasi-professions as journalism in which the bulk of the employees have acquired their skill by experience rather than by any formal specialized training. Id.

It is uncontested that the job of a PDS II requires no formal advanced education. The issue is whether a position can be exempt notwithstanding the lack of an educational requirement, if the duties actually performed require knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning. Cameron argues for a stand-alone “duties test” independent from any educational considerations. Young argues, and the district court held, that if advanced and specialized education is not customarily required, the exemption cannot apply, regardless of the employee’s duties.

We agree with Young and the district court. The regulations state that a professional is someone “[w]hose primary duty consists of the performance of [w]ork requiring knowledge of an advance type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study. 29 C.F.R. § 541.3(a)(1) (emphasis added). As noted above, “customarily” in this context makes the exemption applicable to the rare individual who, unlike the vast majority of others in the profession, lacks the formal educational training and degree. But where most or all employees in a particular job lack advanced education and instruction, the exemption is inapplicable: hence, the Secretary’s interpretation advising that “members of such quasi-professions as journalism in which the bulk of the employees have acquired their skill by experience rather than by any formal specialized training” are not properly considered exempt professionals. See 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(d).

We therefore hold that an employee is not an exempt professional unless his work requires knowledge that is customarily acquired after a prolonged course of specialized, intellectual instruction and study. If a job does not require knowledge customarily acquired by an advanced educational degree-as for example when many employees in the position have no more than a high school diploma-then, regardless of the duties performed, the employee is not an exempt professional under the FLSA.

With these principles in mind, it is clear that Young is not exempt. The undisputed evidence is that the PDS II position required no advanced educational training or instruction and that, in fact, no PDS II had more than a high school education.

Two sister courts have issued persuasive opinions on this subject. In Vela v. City of Houston, 276 F.3d 659, 675 (5th Cir.2001), the only decisive factors were education and discretion (the exercise of professional judgment on the job). On that basis, the court distinguished emergency medical technicians and paramedics (who are not required to have college degrees) from nurses and athletic trainers (who are so required). Id. (explaining that EMTs and paramedics are not exempt professionals because they “lack the educational background to satisfy the education prong of the Learned Professional exemption”).

In Fife v. Harmon, 171 F.3d 1173, 1177 (8th Cir.1999), the minimum qualifications for the plaintiffs’ position as Airfield Operation Specialists were “a Bachelor’s degree in aviation management or a directly related field, or four years of full-time experience in aviation administration, or an equivalent combination of experience and education.” The court held the exemption inapplicable: “This is advanced knowledge from a general academic education and from an apprenticeship, not from a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). The court did not separately consider the nature of the plaintiffs’ duties.

Other cases similarly tie the exemption analysis to the academic requirements of the position at issue. See, e.g., Reich v. Wyoming, 993 F.2d 739, 743 (10th Cir.1993) (concluding that game wardens are subject to the professional exemption because they must have a degree in wildlife management, biology, or a similar field); Dybach v. Fla. Dep’t of Corr., 942 F.2d 1562, 1566 (11th Cir.1991) (“Dybach’s position [as a probation officer] did not rise to the level of a section 213(a)(1) [exempt] professional because it did not require a college or an advanced degree in any specialized field of knowledge.”).

Finally, the case law advanced by Cameron is neither binding on this Court nor inconsistent with our conclusion. Some of these cases either misapply (or ignore altogether) the requirement that the plaintiff’s knowledge be of the type customarily acquired by a prolonged course of advanced intellectual study. See Debejian v. Atl. Testing Labs., Ltd., 64 F.Supp.2d 85, 88 (N.D.N.Y.1999); Stevins v. Provident Constr. Co., No. 04-15189, 137 Fed.Appx. 198, 199 (11th Cir. Apr. 18, 2005). Another case cited by Cameron provides minimal justification for its holding. See Dingwall v. Friedman Fisher Assocs., P.C., 3 F.Supp.2d 215, 218 (N.D.N.Y.1998) (holding, without explanation, that designing electrical systems is “clearly an area requiring advanced knowledge in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study”).

On the basis of the foregoing, we conclude that, as a matter of law, Young was not an exempt professional because he did not do work which required knowledge customarily acquired by a prolonged course of advanced intellectual study.”

Therefore, the Court affirmed the lower Court’s ruling that Plaintiff, who lacked a prolonged course of specialized, intellectual instruction and study, was not professionally exempt.

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