Rindfleisch v Gentiva Health Services, Inc
As discussed here, this case was before the court on the parties’ respective cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiffs, registered nurses (RNs) and physical therapists (PTs)(collectively “clinicians”), paid in part by-the-visit to defendant’s patient’s homes asserted that they were entitled to unpaid overtime under the FLSA. Defendant contended that plaintiffs were exempt from overtime pursuant to the so-called “professional exemption.” Granting the plaintiffs’ motion and denying that of the defendant, the court held that the plaintiffs did not qualify for such exemption, because they were not paid on a “salary basis” or “fee basis,” a requisite element for application of the exemption.
Describing the pay policy at issue, the court stated:
Gentiva provides home healthcare services to patients throughout the United States[Doc. No. 508, 1].1 To provide these services, Gentiva employs registered nurses and physical or occupational therapists to provide in-home healthcare to Gentiva’s patients (collectively “Clinicians”) [Doc. No. 508, 1]. Since December of 2008, Gentiva pays the majority of its Clinicians on a pay per-visit plan (the “PPV Plan”) [Doc. No. 586, 4–5].2 Under the PPV Plan, Clinicians are paid a set fee for a “routine visit” to a patient’s home (“visit fees”) [Doc. No. 586, 14]. These visit fees do not vary based on the time it takes Clinicians to complete a specific in-home visit [id. at 15]. In addition, Clinicians under the PPV Plan are also paid on what Gentiva describes as a “flat rate” for non-visit related work (“non-visit fees”) [id. at 19]. In setting the amount of non-visit fees, Gentiva factors in the amount of time it takes Clinicians to perform a specific non-visit related activity [id.].
Gentiva maintains that the PPV Plan constitutes a “fee basis” payment under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. [id. at 14]. Therefore, Gentiva classifies all of its Clinicians compensated under the PPV Plan as professional employees exempt from overtime compensation under the FLSA [id. at 10].
The court framed the issue before it as follows:
In summary, the only issue for the Court to determine at this stage of the litigation process is whether or not the PPV Plan is unlawful under the FLSA.
After explaining the elements required for the application of the professional exemption, and noting that here it was undisputed that plaintiffs me the duties prong of the exemption, the court addressed whether or not the defendant’s pay scheme was a “fee basis” or “salary basis” within the meaning of the applicable regulation:
The DOL regulations state that, in order to satisfy the salary basis test, a professional employee can be paid “on a fee basis, as defined in § 541.605.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.600(a). Section 541.605 states an employee can be paid on a “fee basis” that satisfies the salary basis test if “the employee is paid an agreed sum for a single job regardless of the time required for its completion.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.605(a). Subsection (b) of section 541.605 states that, in order for a particular fee payment to satisfy the salary basis test, “the amount paid to the employee will be tested by determining the time worked on the job and whether the fee payment is at a rate that would amount to at least $455 per week if the employee worked 40 hours.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.605(b).
In the alternative, the DOL regulations, under section 541.604, allow an employee exempt from overtime pay to receive “extra” compensation that does not satisfy the salary basis test. Specifically, section 541.604 allows two forms of “extra” payment, articulated respectively in subsections (a) and (b). Anani v. CVS RX Servs., Inc., 788 F.Supp.2d 55, 66 (E.D.N.Y.2011). Subsection (a) of section 541.604 allows an employee to receive “additional compensation,” that does not satisfy the salary basis test, “based on hours worked for work beyond the normal workweek.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.604(a). Subsection (b) allows an employee to receive payment on an hourly, daily, or shift basis without losing the overtime exemption, so long as he is guaranteed weekly payment of at least $455 and there is a “reasonable relationship” between the guaranteed weekly payment and the employee’s usual weekly earnings. 29 C.F.R. § 541.604(b).
Summarizing the parties’ respective positions, the court explained:
In its motion for partial summary judgment, Plaintiffs argue that the PPV Plan, because the non-visit fees vary based on the amount of time it takes a Clinician to complete a non-visit activity, violates the salary basis test. Therefore, Plaintiffs argue the PPV Plan violates the FLSA and, as a result, that they are owed overtime compensation. In its response to Plaintiffs’ motion, as well as in its own motion for partial summary judgment on the lawfulness of its fee payments, Gentiva asserts the following two arguments: 1. Pursuant to subsection (b) of section § 541.605, the non-visit fees can vary based on the time it takes Clinicians to complete a non-visit activity and still satisfy the salary basis test; and 2. Even if Gentiva’s non-visit fees improperly consider time, Gentiva’s visit fees properly satisfy the salary basis test and, therefore, the non-visit fees constitute “extra” payments under section 541.604. The Court will discuss each of Gentiva’s arguments below.
The court rejected both of the defendant’s arguments in this regard. First, the court concluded that the defendant’s payment of non-visit fees did not satisfy the salary basis test under 29 C.F.R. § 541.605, because they were variable and depended on the amount of time a clinician spent on non-appointment activities:
Subsection (a) of § 541.605 clearly states that a fee for an activity, in order to satisfy the salary basis test, cannot be based on “the time required for [the activity’s] completion.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.605(a). Subsection (a) further states that “[p]ayments based on the number of hours or days worked and not on the accomplishment of a given single task are not considered payments on a fee basis.” Id. Based on this clear and unambiguous language, a “fee” that varies based on the amount of time it takes to complete a specific activity does not satisfy the DOL regulation’s salary basis test. See Bread Political Action Comm. v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 455 U .S. 577, 580 (1982) (stating that, in the absence of clearly expressed legislative intention, the plain language of a statute controls its construction and must be considered conclusive); see also Evenson v. Hartford Life & Annuity Ins. Co., 244 F.R.D. 666, 667 (M.D.Fla.2007) (“As a general rule of interpretation, the plain meaning of a regulation governs.”).
Gentiva argues that subsection (b) of § 541.605 allows it to alter the amount of its non-visit fees based on the time it takes Clinicians to complete a non-visit activity. Subsection (b) of § 541.605 provides that, in order for a fee to satisfy the salary basis test, the fee must “amount to at least $455 per week if the employee worked 40 hours.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.605(b). To illustrate this point, subsection (b) provides the following example: “[t]hus, an artist paid $250 for a picture that took 20 hours to complete meets the minimum salary requirement for exemption since earnings at this rate would yield the artist $500 if 40 hours were worked.” Id. Based on this language, Gentiva argues that subsection (b) allows an employer to alter the amount of a fee based on the time it takes an employee to complete a specific activity, so long as the fee is not set on a straight hourly basis.
In essence, Gentiva argues that it can consider the amount of time it takes Clinicians to perform certain non-visit activities prospectively, thereby allowing its non-visit fees to vary based on time. Specifically, Gentiva argues that its non-visit fees factor in time “for the purpose of accommodating the clinician for missed visits that she would have otherwise performed” [Doc. No. 512–1, 25]. In support of this argument, Gentiva provides the following example:
in accordance with one of its conversion charts, Gentiva may pay a visit rate equivalent of $30 for a training that lasted 45 minutes and a rate of $60, equivalent to two visits, for a different training that lasted 3 hours. If, however, Gentiva simply set a flat rate for all trainings at the visit rate equivalent of $30, the training that took 3 hours would not qualify as a bona fide fee ($30 ÷ 3=$10 an hour or $400 over a 40–hour work week)
[id. at 54]. In comparison, Plaintiffs argue that subsection (b) of § 541.605 “describes how to evaluate the payments after the job is completed to determine whether the clinician has been compensated sufficiently to meet the exemption or is instead overtime eligible” [Doc. No. 584, 13]. In summary, Gentiva argues that subsection (b) is in place to allow an employer, in setting a fee for a specific activity, to vary the fee based on the amount of time it takes to complete said activity before it is complete. In contrast to Gentiva’s position, Plaintiffs argue subsection (b) is in place for the purpose of determining if a set fee satisfies the $455/40 hour requirement after the specific activity is complete.
The 2003 version of the fee basis regulation, former 29 C.F.R. § 541.313, is persuasive authority on this point. In the preamble to rule 29 C.F.R. § 541.605, the Department of Labor (the “DOL”) states that “[p]roposed section 541.605 simplified the fee basis provision in the current rule, but made no substantive change.” Dep’t of Labor, Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees, 69 Fed.Reg. 22122, 22184 (Apr. 23, 2004). Based on the lack of substantive change, it can be inferred that 29 C.F.R. § 541.605 is consistent with the language of former 29 C.F.R. § 541.313. See Belt v. Emcare, Inc., 444 F.3d 403, 414 (5th Cir.2006) (“The amendments effectively adopted § 541.314 after notice and comment, without substantive change, [ ] thereby tending to show that the text of § 541.3(e) does not contradict the former § 541.314.”).
Former 29 C.F.R. § 541.313 provides that “[t]he adequacy of a fee payment … can ordinarily be determined only after the time worked on the job has been determined.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.313(c) (2003) (emphasis added). To illustrate this point, 29 C.F.R. § 541.313 provides the following example:
An illustrator is assigned the illustration of a pamphlet at a fee of $150. When the job is completed, it is determined that the employee worked 60 hours. If the employee worked 40 hours at this rate, the employee would have earned only $100. The fee payment of $150 for work which required 60 hours to complete therefore does not meet the requirement of payment at a rate of $170 per week and the employee must be considered nonexempt.
29 C.F.R. § 541.313(d)(3) (2003). Based on this language, the Court agrees with Plaintiffs that 29 C.F.R. § 541.605(b) articulates how to determine a fee for a specific activity satisfies the salary basis test after the activity is completed. Therefore, 29 C.F.R. § 541.605(b) does not authorize an employer to prospectively alter a fee based on the amount of time it takes an employee to perform a specific work activity.
Without question, Gentiva’s non-visit fees vary based on the amount of time it takes Clinicians to complete a specific non-visit activity. Therefore, the non-visit fees violate the clear language of 29 C.F.R. § 541.605(a), which specifies a fee only satisfies the salary basis test when it is “an agreed sum for a single job regardless of the time required for its completion.” Subsection (b) of 29 C.F.R. § 541.605 merely provides a basis for determining whether or not a fee for a specific activity satisfies the salary basis test after the activity is complete. Therefore, Gentiva cannot rely on subsection (b) as justification for varying its non-visit fees based on the amount of time it takes Clinicians to complete a non-visit activity. Such a reading of subsection (b) would completely contradict and negate the clear and unambiguous language of subsection (a). Therefore, Gentiva’s non-visit fees do not satisfy the salary basis test under 29 C.F.R. § 541.605.
The court also rejected the defendant’s alternative argument that the non-visit fees constituted an “extra” payment under 29 C.F.R. § 541.604:
Section 541.604 provides that “[a]n employer may provide an exempt employee with additional compensation without losing the exemption or violating the salary basis requirement, if the employment arrangement also includes a guarantee of at least the minimum weekly-required amount [$455] paid on a salary basis.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.604(a). Gentiva argues that, because its visit fees satisfy the salary basis test, its non-visit fees constitute extra payments under section 541.604. The Court does not find this argument persuasive under either subsection (a) or subsection (b) of section 541.604.
Subsection (a) of section 541.604 allows an exempt employee to receive “extra” payment as “additional compensation … paid on any basis (e.g., flat sum, bonus payment, straight-time hourly amount, time and one-half or any other basis), and may include paid time off.” Id. However, such “extra” or “additional” compensation is only available under subsection (a) for “extra” or “additional” work, meaning “hours worked for work beyond the normal workweek.” Id. Under subsection (a), “beyond the normal workweek” signifies hours worked in excess of forty. See Anani, 788 F.Supp.2d at 67 (stating “common sense as well as the purpose of the FLSA supports the interpretation that the words ‘the normal workweek’ clearly contemplate a forty (40) hour workweek because the FLSA itself generally establishes the right to overtime for hours worked in excess of forty (40) hours.”) (internal quotation marks, alterations and citation omitted).
Here, Gentiva does not designate non-visit activities as additional work only performed after Clinicians have completed forty hours of in-home visits [Doc. No. 586, 34–35]. Instead, in the weeks non-visit activities are performed, non-visit fees are a part of the Clinicians’ compensation for a normal forty hour workweek. Therefore, non-visit fees are not a form of compensation separate from the Clinicians’ forty hour workweek, but are instead a part of the Clinicians’ compensation for a forty hour workweek that includes non-visit activities. Because non-visit activities, and by extension the non-visit fees, are not designated as separate from the Clinicians’ normal workweek, it is irrelevant that Gentiva’s visit fees satisfy the salary basis test. The visit fees do not encompass the complete form of payment for a Clinicians’ normal workweek and, therefore, do not justify payment of the non-visit fees which do not satisfy the salary basis test. As a result, the non-visit fees cannot be considered “extra” payment under subsection (a) of 29 C.F.R. § 541.604.
Subsection (a) of 29 C.F.R. § 541.604 does not allow an employee to receive two forms of payment, with one form failing to satisfy the fee basis test, for two forms of activities completed as part of an employee’s forty hour workweek. An additional form of payment that does not satisfy the salary basis test can only be awarded for work outside of an employee’s normal workweek. As Gentiva’s non-visit fees are a part of the Clinicians’ compensation for a normal workweek that includes non-visit activities, they do not constitute an “extra” payment under subsection (a) of section 541.604.
Subsection (b) of section 541.604 allows an employer to pay its employee on an hourly, daily or shift basis without negating the overtime exemption “if the employment arrangement also includes a guarantee of at least the minimum weekly required amount paid on a salary basis [$455] regardless of the number of hours, days or shifts worked, and a reasonable relationship exists between the guaranteed amount and the amount actually earned.” 29 C.F.R. § 541 .604 (emphasis added). In summary, subsection (b) allows an employee to be paid on an hourly, daily, or shift basis without losing the overtime exemption, so long as the “reasonable relationship” test is met. Anani, 788 F.Supp.2d at 62. Subsection (b) provides that “[t]he reasonable relationship test will be met if the weekly guarantee is roughly equivalent to the employee’s usual earnings at the assigned hourly, daily or shift rate for the employee’s normal scheduled workweek.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.604(b).
Perhaps most significantly, the court noted that the defendant apparently conceded that there was no guarantee that the clinicians would receive at least $455.00 per week, regardless of the characterization of the non-visit fees:
In its reply brief regarding its motion for summary judgment on the lawfulness of its fee payments, Gentiva appears to concede that the visit fees do not guarantee Clinicians paid under the PPV Plan even $455 in a given week [Doc. No. 617, 24–25]. Based on this concession, Gentiva argues that “fee-based employees need not be guaranteed pay of at least $455 per week to be eligible for extras under section 541.604, they only need to be guaranteed fees that pay them at a rate that would result in at least $455 if they were to work a full 40–hour week performing those fee-compensated tasks” [id. at 25]. This argument, when applied to Clinicians and their usual weekly earnings, supports the very form of payment scheme that the reasonable relationship test of subsection (b) is attempting to guard against…
Here, Gentiva argues in favor of a compensation framework, without even establishing a set amount of “guaranteed” weekly payment, that allows an even greater discrepancy between the Clinicians’ normal weekly earnings and their “guaranteed” weekly payment. Specifically, Gentiva argues that Clinicians can receive one visit fee in a given week and still meet the guarantee requirement of subsection (b), so long as that single fee satisfies the fee basis test under section 541.605. However, under that scenario, Clinicians would have to receive an amount of non-visit fees that is significantly greater than the amount received from the one visit fee. For example, Gentiva asserts “the more productive opt-in clinicians in this action were able to earn more than $150,000 per year, and one plaintiff earned over $240,000″ [Doc. No. 512–1, 15].11 To earn this amount of compensation in a given year, Clinicians have to receive a weekly amount of earnings that greatly exceeds $455, let alone an undetermined amount that is less than $455. Therefore, under the compensation framework put forth by Gentiva, Clinicians’ “guaranteed” payment is an illusion, having no reasonable relationship to the amount of pay that Clinicians usually receive in a given week. See Dep’t of Labor, 69 Fed.Reg. at 22184 (stating “if an employee is compensated on an hourly basis, or on a shift basis, there must be a reasonable relationship between the amount guaranteed per week and the amount the employee typically earns per week. Thus, if a nurse whose actual compensation is determined on a shift or hourly basis usually earns $1,200 per week, the amount guaranteed must be roughly equivalent to $1,200; the employer could not guarantee such an employee only the minimum salary required by the regulation.”). Therefore, Gentiva’s non-visit fees do not constitute an “extra” payment under subsection (b) of 29 C.F.R. § 541.604.
Thus, the court held that the defendant’s payment plan failed to satisfy the salary or fee basis requirement and thus the professional exemption was inapplicable to the plaintiffs.
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