Tag Archives: Helicopter Pilots

3rd Cir.: Helicopter Pilots Are Not “Learned Professional” Exempt, Because No Specialized Academic Training Required

Pignataro v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

This case was before the Court on the parties cross-appeals.  The Court below granted Plaintiffs, helicopter pilots employed by Defendants, summary judgment, holding that, as a matter of law, helicopter pilots are not exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) under the so-called “learned professional” exemption.  The Court below determined that Defendants’ FLSA violations were not willful.  The Third Circuit agreed on all counts, affirming the lower Court’s decision.

Discussing the non-exempt status of helicopter pilots, the Court said:

“The applicable exemption from the FLSA urged here encompasses employees who are determined to be members of the “learned” professions, as defined by 29 C.F.R. §§ 541.3 and 541.301. An employee’s status as a “learned professional” is determined by his or her duties and salary. 29 C.F.R. § 541.3. In order to qualify as a “learned professional” an employee’s primary duties must consist of:

[w]ork requiring knowledge of an advance [sic] type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study, as distinguished from a general academic education and from an apprenticeship, and from training in the performance of routine mental, manual, or physical processes.  29 C.F.R. § 541.3(a)(1); see also29 C.F.R. § 541.301(a).

While there are additional requirements for “learned professional” status, namely receipt of compensation exceeding $250 or more per week and duties requiring the exercise of discretion, we concern ourselves initially with whether Port Authority helicopter pilots satisfy the requirements under § 541.3(a)(1). See29 C.F.R. § 541.3(e). We thus consider what advanced knowledge “in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction” entails, and then examine whether Pignataro and Chase’s primary duties required such advanced knowledge.

Advanced knowledge is knowledge “which cannot be attained at the high school level,” 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(b), and which has been obtained through “prolonged study.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.300. The learned professional exemption is available for professions where, in the “vast majority of cases,” the employee is required to have “specific academic training.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(d). The exemption does not apply to occupations in which “the bulk of the employees have acquired their skill by experience.” Id. An “advanced academic degree is a standard (if not universal) prequisite [sic]” and is, in fact, “the best prima facie evidence of [professional training].” 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(e)(1). The requirement that the employee’s knowledge be from a field of science or learning “serves to distinguish the professions from the mechanical arts where in some instances the knowledge is of a fairly advanced type, but not in a field of science or learning.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(c). Examples of professions included in the “learned professional” exemption are the fields of “law, medicine, nursing, accounting, actuarial computation, engineering, architecture, teaching, various types of physical, chemical, and biological sciences, including pharmacy.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(e)(1).

Although a college or other specific degree may not be per se required to qualify as a “learned professional,” it is clear that employees must possess knowledge and skill “which cannot be attained at the high school level” and which has been obtained through “prolonged study.” 29 C.F.R. §§ 541.301(b); 541.300. Furthermore, some type of academic degree is required, as opposed to skill acquired through experience. 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(e)(1).

We next examine whether the training and study Pignataro and Chase were required to complete constitute “advanced knowledge in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.”  In order to qualify for their jobs, Port Authority helicopter pilots must fulfill the following requirements: (1) log 2,000 hours of flying time in helicopters; (2) earn a commercial helicopter pilot certificate with a helicopter instrument rating; (3) earn a Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) Second Class Medical certificate; (4) have knowledge of FAA rules and regulations governing helicopter flights; and (5) earn a high school diploma or GED. (App.182, 318.) In order to earn a commercial certificate, applicants must already hold a private pilot certificate and pass both a knowledge and practical test. 14 C.F.R. § 61.123. The Port Authority sends helicopter pilots to Florida for a one-week training, twice each year.

None of the certifications that helicopter pilots are required to have are academic degrees. Helicopter pilots are not required to spend a significant amount of time in a classroom in order to earn their certifications-nearly all of the instruction takes place in the air. Logging in-flight hours, in-flight instruction, and passing practical and written tests do not qualify as a “prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study.” While the Port Authority is correct that helicopter pilots have “specialized knowledge” and “unique skills” (Port Authority Br. 12-13), this is not sufficient to qualify under the learned professional exemption because pilots’ knowledge and skills were acquired through experience and supervised training as opposed to intellectual, academic instruction. The District Court reasoned that pilots’ flight certificates require specialized instruction beyond a high school education, but do not constitute advanced academic degrees. Thus, the District Court determined that helicopter pilots are “ ‘merely highly trained technicians’ … and therefore do not qualify as professional employees under the FLSA.” (App. 7-8 (citing Martin v. Penn Line Serv. Inc., 416 F.Supp. 1387, 1389 (W.D.Pa.1976))). We agree and conclude that Port Authority helicopter pilots’ work does not require advanced knowledge that is customarily acquired from a prolonged course of specialized instruction. We therefore do not reach the issues of whether Pignataro and Chase were salaried employees or consistently exercised discretion in their work. Our reading of the regulation in light of the requirements for the job leads us to the same conclusion as the District Court. Port Authority helicopter pilots are, therefore, not “learned professionals” and are not exempt from the provisions of the FLSA.

The Department of Labor has reached the same conclusion. As we agree with the agency, we need not discuss the degree of deference we would owe to the agency’s view on the issue.  The Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division has noted that the Department has taken the position that pilots are not exempt professionals because “aviation is not a ‘field of science or learning,’ and … the knowledge required to be a pilot is not ‘customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.’ “ Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees, 69 Fed.Reg. 22122, 22156 (Apr. 23, 2004) (citation omitted).

The Department of Labor Review Board (the “Board”) has also decided that airline pilots are not “learned professionals” as defined by 29 C.F.R. §§ 541.3 and 541.301 because there is “no doubt” that airline pilots do not meet the “threshold prerequisite” of “formal specialized academic training in a field of science or learning.” In re U.S. Postal Serv. ANET & WNET Contracts Regarding Review & Reconsideration of Wage Rates for Airline Captains and First Officers, ARB Case No. 98-131, 2000 WL 1100166, at *13-14 (Dep’t of Labor Admin. Rev. Bd. Aug. 4, 2000). The Board found that almost all of the professions delineated in the C.F.R. as “professional” require college or graduate-level study (one exception being certain nursing degrees that require completing a college-like academic program). Id. In contrast:

the training of airline pilots in this country typically does not revolve around specialized college-type academic instruction, but more-closely resembles the classic apprenticeship model-a “structured, systematic program of on-the-job supervised training” coupled with a program of related instruction.  Id. at *16 (citing 29 C.F.R. § 29.4 (1999)).

The Board further noted that many courts have held that a specialized college degree is required to meet the “learned professional” exemption. Id. at *29 n. 11. For example, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that “airfield operation specialists” are not learned professionals because they are only required to have a bachelor’s degree in aviation management or a related field, or four years of full-time experience, or an equivalent combination of education and experience. Fife v. Harmon, 171 F.3d 1173, 1177 (8th Cir.1999). The Fife Court held that “[t]his 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). In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that probation officers are not “learned professionals” because their educational requirement (a four-year college degree) is general and not specialized. Dybach v. State of Fla. Dep’t of Corr., 942 F.2d 1562, 1565-66 (11th Cir.1991).

The Board and the Wage and Hour Division also noted, however, that the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Paul v. Petroleum Equipment Tools, Co., 708 F.2d 168, 175 (5th Cir.1983), concluded that an airplane pilot was a “learned professional” and was therefore exempt from the overtime provisions of the FLSA. 69 Fed.Reg. at 22156;In re U.S. Postal Serv., 2000 WL 1100166 at *13-14. The Board “respectfully disagree[d] with the Paul majority’s analytical approach and conclusion.” In re U.S. Postal Serv., 2000 WL 1100166 at *14. Despite Paul, the Wage and Hour Division decided not to modify its position that pilots are not exempt professionals. 69 Fed.Reg. at 22156. Not surprisingly, the Port Authority urges that we should follow Paul. We note that Paul was decided approximately two decades prior to the Board’s decision and the Wage and Hour Division’s interpretation of the exemption that we cite, and the Paul Court stated that the Wage and Hour Division’s interpretations are entitled to “great weight.” 708 F.2d at 173 (citation omitted).

The Paul Court reasoned that, in order to obtain a commercial license and instrument rating, a pilot must “acquire extensive knowledge of aerodynamics, airplane regulations, airplane operations, instrument procedures, aeronautical charts, and weather forecasting.” 708 F.2d at 172. Additionally, pilots are required to receive instruction from a flight instructor, log a certain number of hours of flight time, and pass written and practical tests . Id. The Paul Court determined that this is “extensive, formal, and specialized training” that is comparable to that undergone by nurses, accountants, and actuaries. Id. at 173. However, in light of our own analysis set forth above, that is consistent with the Department of Labor’s interpretation of the regulations, we decline to follow the reasoning of the Paul Court.

Thus, in a field where most employees gain their skills through intellectual instruction, an individual employee who gained his skills through experience may still be exempt under the FLSA. The Paul Court seems to have focused more on Paul’s individual situation than the regulations permit. See708 F.2d at 174 (“[W]e do not decide that company pilots as a class perform exempt professional work. We face here only a pilot like Paul with the highest flight rating, considerable training, and job experience.”). We cannot endorse this approach. See also Dybach, 942 F.2d at 1565 (finding that the determinative factor is the education that the job requires, not the education that the employee actually has); In re U.S. Postal Serv., 2000 WL 1100166 at *14:

[A] close analysis of the specialized academic training provided to members of a job classification is a threshold step in determining whether the occupation generically meets the professional exemption test. Consequently, we share the view of the dissenting opinion in Paul that it is analytically incorrect to “work backwards” from the level of an employee’s knowledge and skill in order to infer that the occupation requires the kind of advanced academic instruction contemplated by the regulations.

Based on the above analysis, we will affirm the District Court’s grant of summary judgment.”

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