N.D.Tex.: Debt Settlement Company Not a “Retail or Service Establishment”

Parker v. ABC Debt Relief, Ltd. Co.

This case was before the court on the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment, regarding a variety of issues. As discussed here, one of the issues concerned the applicability of the so-called retail sales exemption, commonly referred to as 7(i), to defendant, a debt settlement company. The court held that the defendant was not a “retail or service establishment” within the meaning of 7(i), and held that the plaintiffs were not retail or service exempt as a matter of law.

Rejecting the defendant’s argument that the plaintiffs were subject to the retail exemption, because they engaged in telephone sales of a specific retail product to the general public, the court explained:

To determine whether an employer is a “retail or service establishment,” courts look to the former statutory definition in Section 13(a)(2) of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(2), which defines a “retail or service establishment” as one in which 75% of the annual dollar volume of sales of goods or services is “not for resale” and “is recognized as retail sales or services in the particular industry.” See 29 C.F.R. 779.319; Geig, 407 F.3d at 1047.

“Determination of whether a business fits the retail concept is not without difficulty.” Brennan, 477 F.2d at 296. In making their determinations, courts consistently rely on the expertise of the Department of Labor, which has promulgated an extensive series of regulations and interpretive rules that accompany the statute. See 29 C.F.R. § 779.300 et seq. Although courts are not bound by interpretative bulletins, they do provide guidance because they reflect the position of those most experienced with the application of the Act. Brennan, 477 F.2d at 296–97. Courts must consider all circumstances relevant to the business at issue. 29 C.F.R. 779.318(b).

After quoting the relevant section of the CFR, the court reasoned:

The Department of Labor’s regulations consistently emphasize that the exemption is meant to apply to “traditional” local retail establishments. 29 C.F.R. §§ 779.314, 779.315, 779.317. To assist the public, the regulations identify certain establishments as traditional local retail or service establishments—e.g., restaurants, hotels, barber shops, and repair shops. The regulations also seek to assist the public by identifying establishments that do not fall within the exception—e.g., insurance companies that sell insurance and electric companies that sell power. 29 C.F.R. §§ 779.316, 779.317. The Fifth Circuit has noted this ” ‘demonstrates that not everything the consumer purchases can be a retail sale of goods or services’ and ‘industry usage is not controlling.’ ” Brennan, 477 F.2d at 295 (citation omitted).

The regulations elaborate further on the definition by stating that “an establishment, wherever located, will not be considered a retail or service establishment within the meaning of the Act, if it is not ordinarily available to the general consuming public.” 29 C.F.R. § 779.319. “An establishment does not have to be actually frequented by the general public in the sense that the public must actually visit it and make purchases of goods or services on the premises in order to be considered as available and open to the general public. A refrigerator repair service shop, for example, is available and open to the general public even if it receives all its orders on the telephone and performs all of its repair services on the premises of its customers.” Id.

In this case, Defendants operated a debt settlement business from the eighth and tenth floors of an office building in Dallas, Texas. There were three main aspects to this debt settlement operation—sales, customer service, and negotiation with creditors. The Salespeople recruited the clients. They were constantly making telephone calls (around 300 calls a day)—to prospective customers all over the country—trying to sell a service. This is not the type of service that is utilized by the general public in the course of their daily living. Defendants were not “serv[ing] [an] everyday need [ ] of the community.” Defendants did not operate from a store front. They did not serve the general public by providing a retail product or service in the traditional sense. Defendants’ debt negotiation and settlement business was similar to other establishments that lack a “retail concept”—such as banks, brokers, credit companies, and loan offices. 29 C.F.R. § 779.317.

For these reasons, the Court finds that Defendants did not establish their burden of proving they operate a retail or service establishment within the meaning of the FLSA. The Court hereby DENIES Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the retail or service establishment exemption and finds as a matter of law the salespeople Plaintiffs are not exempt from overtime pay under the retail or service exemption.

Click Parker v. ABC Debt Relief, Ltd. Co. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order.

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