Tag Archives: Salaried Misclassified

D.Ariz.: Where Construction Inspector Was Salaried Misclassified, Damages to Calculated Using Default Time and a Half Methodology, Not FWW

Blotzer v. L-3 Communications Corp.

This case was before the court on the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment. Both plaintiff and defendant contended that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law regarding the exempt status of plaintiff, a construction inspector. The parties further disputed whether the fluctuating workweek methodology or the FLSA’s default time and a half methodology was applicable to calculate plaintiff’s damages, assuming he had been misclassified. After finding plaintiff to be non-exempt, the court held that plaintiff’s damages had to be calculated using the FLSA’s default methodology, because: (1) it is contrary to the rationale of the FLSA to apply the FWW method in misclassification cases; (2) application of the FWW in misclassification cases runs counter to the intent of the FLSA; and (3) even if the FWW method were applied, the defendant had failed to prove the elements of the FWW method were present in the case.

The court explained:

The FWW method set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 778.114 is not intended to apply retroactively in a misclassification case. See Urnikis–Negro, 616 F.3d at 666 (stating that 29 C.F.R. § 778.114 is not a remedial measure that specifies how damages are to be calculated when a court finds that an employer has breached its statutory obligations). It was drafted by the Department of Labor as “forward-looking” and only describes how employers and employees should structure an agreement for future compensation. Id. at 677. Moreover, because the regulation was adopted without formal rule-making, it is entitled to less deference. See Hasan v. GPM Investments, LLC, 2012 WL 3725693, *2 (D.Conn.2012) (citing Christensen v. Harris Co., 529 U.S. 576, 120 S.Ct. 1655, 146 L.Ed.2d 621 (2000)). The Court concludes that the FWW should not be applied in the present case because: (1) it is contrary to the rationale of the FLSA to apply the FWW method in misclassification cases; (2) application of the FWW in misclassification cases runs counter to the intent of the FLSA; and (3) even if the FWW method were applied, Defendant has failed to prove the elements of the FWW method are present in this case.

Application of the FWW method in a misclassification case is contrary to FLSA’s rationale. The FWW method requires proof of a “clear mutual understanding” that: (1) the fixed salary is compensation for the hours worked each work week, whatever their number; and (2) overtime pay will be provided contemporaneously such that it fluctuates depending on hours worked per week. See 29 C.F.R. §§ 778.114(a) & (c). In a misclassification case, at least one of the parties initiated employment with the belief that the employee was exempt from the FLSA, paid on a salary basis, and therefore not entitled to overtime. When an employee is erroneously classified as exempt and illegally being deprived of overtime pay, neither the fourth nor fifth legal prerequisites for use of the FWW method is satisfied. The parties do not have a “clear, mutual understanding” that a fixed salary will be paid for “fluctuating hours, apart from overtime premiums” because the parties have not contemplated overtime pay. In addition, because the employees were erroneously classified as exempt, overtime compensation was not provided contemporaneously. See Russell v. Wells Fargo and Co., 672 F.Supp.2d 1008 (N.D.Cal.2009); Hasan, 2012 WL 3725693 at * 4 (collecting cases which hold that, in a misclassification case, the parties never agreed to an essential term of a fluctuating work week arrangement, ie. that overtime would be paid at different rates depending on the number of hours worked per week). As the court stated in Ransom v. M. Patel Enters., Inc., 825 F.Supp.2d 799, 810 n. 11 (W.D.Tex.2011):

The significance of the employee’s lack of knowledge of nonexempt status cannot be overstated. The fundamental assumption underpinning the FWW is that it is fair to use it to calculate overtime pay because the employee consented to the payment scheme. But in the context of an FLSA misclassification suit when consent is inferred from the employee’s conduct, that conduct will always, by definition, have been based on the false assumption that he was not entitled to overtime compensation. The job will have been advertised as a salaried position. The employee, if he raised the issue, will have been told that the salary is all he will receive, regardless of how many hours he works. That is the very nature of a salaried, exempt position. When it turns out that the employer is wrong, and it is learned that the FLSA required the employer to pay the employee an overtime premium, the notion that the employees conduct before he knew this is evidence that the employee somehow consented to a calculation method for the overtime pay that no one even knew was due, is perverse. If the FWW requires consent in some fashion, the employee’s actions before he knew he was due overtime pay just cannot logically be the basis of that consent.

Furthermore, 29 C.F.R. § 778.114(c) provides that the FWW method cannot be used “where all the facts indicate that an employee is being paid for his overtime hours at a rate no greater than that which he receives for non-overtime hours.” In a misclassification case, because employees have not been paid overtime premiums, they are compensated for those hours worked more than forty at a rate not greater than the regular rate. Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1014. Thus, attempting to retroactively apply the FWW method to a miscalculation case is akin to “the old ‘square peg in a round hole’ problem [because it requires] apply[ing] § 778.114 to a situation it was not intended to address.” EZPawn, 633 F.Supp.2d at 402.

“In making its decision here, the Court is ‘mindful of the directive that the [FLSA] is to be liberally construed to apply to the furthest reaches consistent with Congressional direction.’ ” Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1014 (citing Klem, 208 F.3d at 1089). Application of the FWW in a misclassification case gives rise to a “perverse incentive” for employers, because the employee’s hourly “regular rate” decreases with each additional hour worked. In fact, the difference between the FWW method and the traditional time-anda-half method can result in an employee being paid seventy-one percent less for overtime over a given year, and under the FWW method, the effective overtime hourly rate of an employee working sixty-one hours or more is less than the non-overtime hourly rate of an employee who worked no more than forty hours per week. See Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1012;
see also
Hasan, 2012 WL 3725693 at *2 (calculating the pay difference for a misclassified employer under both methods). This result is contrary to the FLSA’s purpose: encouraging employers to spread employment among more workers, rather than employing fewer workers who are then required to work longer hours. See Robertson v. Alaska Juneau Gold Min. Co. ., 157 F.2d 876, 879 (9th Cir.1946)

The court further explained that even if it had reached the opposite conclusion of law (i.e. that the FWW could be applicable in some misclassification cases), the facts of the case would still preclude its application here:

Finally, even if the Court concluded that the FWW method does apply in some miscalculation cases, it would not apply in the present case because Defendant has failed to demonstrate a “fluctuating” work week or a “clear mutual understanding” of straight pay and a contemporaneous overtime arrangement as required by the regulation. The FWW was intended to apply to “fluctuating” work schedules, ie. schedules in which an employee endures long hours some weeks but enjoys the benefit of short hours in other weeks, all at the same rate of pay. See Hasan, 2012 WL 3725693 at *4. In the present case, it is undisputed that Plaintiffs consistently worked more than 40 hours per week. Thus, Plaintiffs’ “variance, between weeks with a moderate amount of overtime hours, and weeks where a majority of hours worked exceeded the 40 hour threshold, is not the same as the up and down fluctuation contemplated by the DOL and by the Court in Missel.Id. In addition, by its plain terms, the FWW method applies only when the employee clearly understands that he will receive straight-time pay for all hours worked and extra compensation of at least half his regular rate of pay, in addition to the fixed salary, for overtime hours during the weeks when he works overtime. Hunter v. Sprint Corp., 453 F.Supp.2d 44, 59 (D.D.C.2006); Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1013–14. No such clear, mutual understanding is present in this case. Defendant contends that Plaintiffs agreed to work for a set salary regardless of whether they worked “35 hours or 55 hours.” (Doc. 74, pg.13.) Defendant misquotes Plaintiffs’ testimony regarding the number of hours they anticipated working. Although Defendant describes the Plaintiffs’ testimony regarding their salary as their “sole source of income regardless of whether they worked 35 or 55 hours,” neither Plaintiff testified to any expectation of ever working less than 40 hours. (Doc. 71, pg. 10; Doc. 71–1, pgs. 35 & 52.) The undisputed evidence is that Plaintiffs expected to work 50 hours a week. Furthermore, even if Defendant could prove that Plaintiffs and Defendant had a clear, mutual understanding that Plaintiffs would work 50 hours a week without overtime pay, such an arrangement amounts to an agreement “not to receive their FLSA entitlement to overtime pay. This would be illegal. Employees cannot agree to waive their right to overtime pay.” Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1014. The parties’ lack of “mutual understanding” regarding Plaintiffs’ salary is further supported by the fact that Plaintiffs, upon realizing that they were being required to work far more than 50 hours per week, complained about their hours and were eventually paid some overtime.

In sum, the Court agrees with its sister district court in Northern California which held that “If Defendants’ position were adopted, an employer, after being held liable for FLSA violations, would be able unilaterally to choose to pay employees their unpaid overtime premium under the more employer-friendly of the two calculation methods. Given the remedial purpose of the FLSA, it would be incongruous to allow employees, who have been illegally deprived of overtime pay, to be shortchanged further by an employer who opts for the discount accommodation intended for a different situation.” Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1014. Accordingly, the Court concludes that the FWW method to damages calculation is not applicable in the instant case.

Click Blotzer v. L-3 Communications Corp. to read the entire Order.

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M.D.La.: Defendant Not Entitled to FWW in Salary Misclassification Case, Where Failed to Pay Plaintiff “Fixed Salary” as Required by 778.114

McCumber v. Eye Care Center of America, Inc.

This case was before the court on the parties cross-motions seeking summary judgment.  As discussed here, the court held that Plaintiff’s unpaid overtime damages, if any, were to be calculated using the FLSA’s default time and a half methodology, rather than the fluctuating workweek (“FWW”) methodology.  Although the Defendant claimed it was entitled to use the FWW to calculate Plaintiff’s damages, due to the fact that Plaintiff was salaried misclassified, the court disagreed.  The court held that Defendant had failed to pay Plaintiff a “fixed salary” as required for application of 29 C.F.R. § 778.114, because  the evidence showed that Defendant docked Plaintiff’s pay on at least 2 occasions when Plaintiff worked fewer than 40 hours in a workweek.

Reviewing the parties’ respective arguments and holding that any damages ultimately found due were to be calculated at time and a half, the court reasoned:

“Defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment seeks judgment in its favor declaring that any wages found to be due plaintiff in this case shall be calculated using the fluctuating workweek method (“FWW method”) pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 778.114.  Subsection (a) of the provision at issue instructs that

‘[a]n employee employed on a salary basis may have hours of work which fluctuate from week to week and the salary may be paid him pursuant to an understanding with his employer that he will receive such fixed amount as straight time pay for whatever hours he is called upon to work in a workweek, whether few or many.’

Under the FWW method, the amount of overtime owed to such an employee is paid at the rate of one-half-time pay, rather than one-and-a-half-time pay. The reason for this is that, according to the salary agreement among the parties, all the hours worked by the employee have already been compensated at straight-time pay and, thus, these hours are only shortchanged by half-time pay, rather than completely uncompensated.

In order to calculate the amount actually due under the FWW method, the fixed weekly salary is divided by the number of hours actually worked in a particular week. The resulting sum is the employee’s “regular rate of pay.” An employee found to be due overtime pay would be paid one half of the regular rate of pay for each hour of overtime worked in that particular week. While the regular rate of pay decreases as hours worked each week increase, the fixed salary must be sufficient such that the regular rate of pay never falls below the minimum wage requirement of 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1).

In addition to the requirement that the minimum wage requirement be sustained by the regular rate of pay calculation, the employer who has allegedly misclassified a position as exempt under the FLSA bears the burden of proving that there existed a “clear mutual understanding” among the employer and employee that the fixed weekly salary is compensation for the hours worked in any given workweek, no matter how few or many, in order to impose the FWW method for calculating overtime due.

Defendants argue that “it is undisputed that [p]laintiff was classified as exempt under the FLSA and was paid a fixed salary of $40,000 per year, regardless of the hours he worked.”  Defendants point to plaintiff’s testimony that he was “usually paid a set amount in each paycheck” and “often worked before and more often after the time set on the schedule” as evidence that plaintiff and defendants were parties to a “clear mutual understanding” that his salary was fixed, despite his varying hours .

The court has examined plaintiff’s written statement, as cited by defendants, and finds that the citation offered by defendants quotes only a portion of plaintiff’s statement. In its entirety, the passages cited by defendants reads

22. I was usually paid a set amount in each paycheck, plus production and other bonuses.

23. The weekly schedule made by the store manager was the minimum time I was expected to work. I often worked before and more often after the time set on the schedule when there were orders to fill or equipment to maintain or repair, or when I had to drive to one of the other labs in the district to repair or maintain equipment. I was also frequently called in to repair machinery on my days off.

Plaintiff asserts that he was not party to a “clear mutual understanding” as is required for application of the FWW method. Plaintiff points out that, on at least two occasions, his biweekly paycheck was reduced by 8 hours so that he was paid for only 72 hours, though he is usually paid for 80 hours.  Plaintiff argues that, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. 778.114(c), the FWW method is inapplicable in the instant case because subsection (c) clearly instructs that the employer must pay the salary agreed to by the parties even when the employee does not work the full number of hours scheduled.

Plaintiff further asserts that ECCA internal policies instruct general managers to assume a 40 hour workweek when scheduling various management personnel to work in their stores.  Plaintiff also points to the ECCA policy entitled “Work Schedules and Attendance,” which states that “[t]he normal workweek will consist of forty hours. The normal workday will consist of eight hours of work with an unpaid meal period.”  Plaintiff argues that these policies, as well as the documented deductions in his biweekly paychecks demonstrate that defendants expected plaintiff to work a minimum of 40 hours and, in the event he failed to do so and did not claim leave or other holiday to make up for the time, defendants expected not to pay him the full amount of his salary.

The court has reviewed the documentary evidence cited by plaintiff, as well as plaintiff’s statement, cited by defendants and finds that defendants have failed to demonstrate that no genuine dispute exists as to the applicability of the FWW method in this case. In light of the documentary evidence produced by plaintiff, the court finds that plaintiff has demonstrated that, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. 778.114(c), the FWW method is inapplicable to the case at bar. More specifically, the court finds that the check summary documents offered by plaintiff demonstrate that, on two occasions (9/25/2009 and 10/9/2009), plaintiff failed to work the required 80 hours in a designated two-week period and did not claim any holiday or vacation to make up for the shortage in his hours and, accordingly, eight hours worth of pay was deducted from his salary.  Thus, no sincere argument may be made by defendants that its intention was to pay plaintiff a set salary regardless of the hours he worked in a given week, as required for application of the FWW method. On the contrary, the evidence before the court demonstrates defendants’ expectation that plaintiff work a minimum of forty hours each week and that he would be compensated only for those hours he worked or for which he claimed holidays or vacation to which he was entitled. Defendants’ motion will be denied as to its request for application of the FWW method in this case and, accordingly, any overtime found by the jury to be owed to plaintiff shall be compensated at the rate of one and one-half times the amount of plaintiff’s regular hourly wage pursuant to 29 C.F.R. 541.207(a)(1).”

Click McCumber v. Eye Care Center of America, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Ruling.

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USSC: Plaintiff’s Petition for Certiorari Denied Regarding Calculation of Damages for “Salaried Misclassified” Workers

Urnikis-Negro v. American Family Property

In a case where the United States Supreme Court could have decided the oft-raised issue of how to calculate an employee’s damages, following a finding that they were “salaried misclassified,” the Supreme Court has denied Plaintiff’s Petition for Cert, and therefore the issue remains largely unresolved.  In a decision discussed here, the Seventh Circuit held that the proper calculation of damages in such a situation was the the “fluctuating workweek” methodology, rather than time and a half.  The Fourth Circuit held that only “half-time” damages are due when an employee is salaried misclassified recently too.  This decision was widely watched by Wage and Hour practitioners, because of the impact the calculation issue has on damages for such employees who are misclassified.   Under the fluctuating workweek calculation, an employee who was salaried and misclassified receives less than one third the damages he or she would receive if the award were made at time and a half.

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M.D.Fla.: In “Salary Misclassification” Case, Time And A Half Damages Due, Because FWW Calculation Would Result In Sub-Minimum Wages For Overtime Hours In Many Weeks

West v. Verizon Services Corp.

This case was before the court on the Defendants’ motions for summary judgment on a variety of issues.  Defendants’ motions were denied.  As discussed here, the case of interest, because the court weighed in on the hot-button issue of how to calculate damages for an employee who was “salaried misclassified” by his or her employer.  Here, the court held that the damages for the plaintiff, if any, were to be calculated using the FLSA’s default time and a half methodology, largely because a calculation under the fluctuating workweek methodology (FWW) would result in sub-minimum wages for overtime hours in many weeks.

Pertinent to the issue discussed here, Plaintiffs pay was $400.00 per week in salary and, in some instances they could earn a $200.00 bonus in addition, if certain conditions were met.  The testimony in the record also indicated that the Plaintiffs worked varying hours each week, sometimes working in excess of 60 hours per week.

Holding that Plaintiffs’ damages, if any, were due to be calculated at the FLSA’s default time and a half rate, the court reasoned:

“D. Rate of Overtime Compensation

As noted above, Defendants argue that West is not entitled to any overtime compensation. However, in the alternative to Defendants’ aforementioned arguments, Defendants submit that if West is entitled to overtime compensation, she is not entitled to overtime compensation at the rate of time and one-half for hours worked over 40. Rather, Defendants contend that, if West is entitled to overtime compensation, her damages should be calculated using the “half-time” method. West disagrees, and seeks time and one-half for all overtime hours worked.

The FLSA mandates overtime payment for non-exempt employees for hours worked over 40 in a workweek at a rate of one and one-half times the regular rate at which the employee is paid. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). As correctly noted by Defendants, “calculation of the ‘regular rate’ is thus the starting point for determining the amount of overtime an employee is owed.” (Doc. # 214 at 12).

In Overnight Motor Transportation Company v. Missel, 316 U.S. 572, 580, 62 S.Ct. 1216, 86 L.Ed. 1682 (1942), the Court held that the employee’s “regular rate” may be determined by dividing the number of hours actually worked by the weekly wage. Id. As a result, a non-exempt employee who receives a weekly salary for all hours worked (even hours over 40) has, by definition, already been paid his “regular rate” for all hours worked in the workweek. Using this method, a salaried employee is only owed half-time for any hours worked in excess of 40 per week.

There can be no doubt that under certain circumstances, overtime payment using the half-time approach is entirely appropriate. “Virtually every court that has considered the question has upheld the remedial use of half-time in failed exemption cases.” Torres v. Bacardi Global Brands Promotions, Inc., 482 F.Supp.2d 1379, 1381, n. 2 (S.D.Fla.2007) (internal citation omitted). However, West asserts that compensation for overtime using the half-time approach, rather than the time and one-half approach, is improper here because Defendants have not satisfied the requirements of the “Fluctuating Work Week” Regulation.

Under 29 C.F.R. § 778.114, the fluctuating workweek method of calculating compensation is used only if the following requirements are met: (1) the employee’s hours fluctuate from week to week; (2) the employee receives a fixed weekly salary which remains the same regardless of the number of hours worked during the week; (3) the fixed amount is sufficient to provide compensation at a regular rate not less than the legal minimum wage; (4) the employer and the employee have a clear and mutual understanding that the employer will pay the employee a fixed salary regardless of the number of hours worked; and (5) the employee receives a fifty percent overtime premium in addition to the fixed weekly salary for all hours worked in excess of 40 during the week. See also Davis v. Friendly Express, Inc., 61 Fed. App’x 671 (11th Cir.2003); O’Brien v. Town of Agawam, 350 F.3d 279, 288 (1st Cir.2003); Griffin v. Wake County, 142 F.3d 712, 716 (4th Cir.1998).

It is evident that the arrangement between West and Defendants does not comport with the fluctuating workweek requirements above. Most importantly, if West worked 72 hours a week, her hourly rate using the fluctuating workweek method would be $5.56, which is less than the applicable minimum wage during the time of her employment ($6.79). As calculated by West, “any week in which West worked at least 59 hours, her hourly rate would fall below the guaranteed minimum wage.” (Doc. # 224).

In addition, West testified that her hours did not fluctuate in that she worked 72 hours per week, every week. There can be no understanding that an employee’s salary is intended to compensate for fluctuating hours-the hallmark of a fluctuating work week case-when the worker understands her hours to be set at 72 hours per week. Furthermore, West’s salary was not “fixed” because she received various bonus payments and commissions.

On the present record, the Court declines to determine that West’s overtime compensation, if any, should be limited to half-time, rather than time and one-half. In the instance that a jury determines that West is entitled to overtime compensation, West’s rate of overtime compensation will be time and one-half.”

Click West v. Verizon Services Corp. to read the entire order.

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4th Cir.: When Salaried Employees Were Misclassified, Damages Properly Calculated At “Half-Time” Rather Than Time And A Half

Desmond v. PNGI Charles Town Gaming, L.L.C.

As discussed here previously, this was the second time this case ended up at the 4th Circuit.  Previously, the 4th Circuit had vacated the trial court’s Order determining the plaintiff’s to be administratively exempt and remanded the case for further findings.  On this appeal the plaintiffs challenged the lower court’s ruling as to how their damages in this so-called “salary misclassified” case should be determined.  Additionally, the defendant cross-appealed the lower court’s determination, on summary judgment, that it’s violations were willful.  Joining other Circuits who have ruled on the calculation issue, the 4th Circuit held that the lower court properly applied a so-called “half-time” calculation in determining the plaintiffs damages.

In making its ruling, the 4th Circuit discussed, at length case law from other circuits:

“The former employees worked as racing officials with Charles Town Gaming. J.A. 50. Charles Town Gaming prepared the job descriptions for racing officials in 1999. Id. at 55-56. In doing so, Charles Town Gaming’s human resources director used a computer program to help determine whether to designate the position as exempt or non-exempt from overtime under the FLSA. Id. Charles Town Gaming paid the racing officials a per diem rate and treated them as exempt. See Aff. Karen Raffo, Nov. 20, 2007. Over the ensuing years, Charles Town Gaming changed the pay from per diem to a fixed weekly salary that the parties intended to cover all hours worked. See J.A. 56, 146-52; Aff. Karen Raffo, Nov. 20, 2007. Charles Town Gaming believed (erroneously) that the former employees were subject to the FLSA administrative exemption; therefore, Charles Town Gaming did not pay them overtime. J.A. 49. All three appellants often worked more than 40 hours in a week. Id. at 50. After the appellants unanimously declared the wrong horse to have won a race, Charles Town Gaming dismissed them from their employment. Id.

The former employees contend the district court erred in calculating their unpaid overtime compensation under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Charles Town Gaming contends the district court erred by concluding that their FLSA violation was willful. We review a grant of summary judgment de novo. See, e.g., United States v. Bergbauer, 602 F.3d 569, 574 (4th Cir.2010). When cross-motions for summary judgment are before a court, the court examines each motion separately, employing the familiar standard under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See, e.g., Ga. Pac. Consumer Prods., L.P. v. Von Drehle Corp., 618 F.3d 441, 445 (4th Cir.2010).

The former employees challenge how the district court calculated their unpaid overtime compensation under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The Supreme Court addressed how to calculate such unpaid overtime compensation under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) in Overnight Motor. 316 U .S. at 580. The Court held that when calculating the “regular rate” of pay for an employee who agreed to receive a fixed weekly salary as payment for all hours worked, a court should divide the employees fixed weekly salary by the total hours worked in the particular workweek.   Id. at 579-80 (analyzing section 7 of the FLSA, now codified at 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1)). This calculation should be completed for each workweek at issue and results in a regular rate for a given workweek. Id. Of course, the Court recognized that the regular rate could vary depending on the total hours worked. The Court then determined that the employee should receive overtime compensation for all hours worked beyond 40 in a given workweek at a rate not less than one-half of the employee’s regular rate of pay. Id.

Although the parties agree that Overnight Motor applies in calculating the regular rate, they disagree about how to calculate the overtime premium. Specifically, the parties disagree over whether the former employees should receive 150% of the regular rate for all hours worked over 40 in a given workweek or 50% of the regular rate for all hours worked over 40 in a given workweek.

In analyzing how to calculate unpaid overtime compensation under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) in this mistaken exemption classification case, we note that four sister circuits have addressed this issue. The First, Fifth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits all have determined that a 50% overtime premium was appropriate in calculating unpaid overtime compensation under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) in mistaken exemption classification cases, so long as the employer and employee had a mutual understanding that the fixed weekly salary was compensation for all hours worked each workweek and the salary provided compensation at a rate not less than the minimum wage for every hour worked. See Urnikis-Negro v. Am. Family Prop. Servs., 616 F.3d 665 (7th Cir.2010); Clements v. Serco, Inc., 530 F.3d 1224 (10th Cir.2008); Valerio v. Putnam Assocs., Inc., 173 F.3d 35 (1st Cir .1999); Blackmon v. Brookshire Grocery Co., 835 F.2d 1135 (5th Cir.1988).

In Blackmon, the Fifth Circuit applied 29 C.F.R. § 778.114 to calculate unpaid overtime compensation in a mistaken exemption classification case. 835 F.2d at 1138. The employees in Blackmon were meat-market managers who were wrongly classified as exempt. Id. at 1137-38. The district court calculated their unpaid overtime compensation by dividing the weekly salary by 40 hours to determine their regular rate, multiplying that rate by 150%, and then multiplying that result by the number of overtime hours. Id. at 1138. The Fifth Circuit rejected this method, instead applying 29 C.F.R. § 778.114 to determine the regular rate, and only using a 50% multiplier. Id. The Fifth Circuit did not cite, much less discuss, Overnight Motor.

In Valerio, the First Circuit upheld an award of summary judgment in a mistaken exemption classification case. 173 F.3d at 39-40. Valerio was wrongly classified as an exempt employee. Id. at 37. Upon dismissing Valerio from employment, her employer gave her a lump-sum payment intended to cover any overtime owed to her. Id. at 38. In calculating the unpaid overtime compensation, the employer paid her a 50% overtime premium and relied on 29 C.F.R. § 778.114. The First Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding that the amount paid was more than was owed to Valerio under the FLSA. Id. In Valerio, the First Circuit cited, but did not discuss, Overnight Motor. Id. at 39-40.

In Clements, the Tenth Circuit affirmed a district court’s application of 29 C.F.R. § 778.114 to calculate unpaid overtime compensation in a mistaken exemption classification case. 530 F.3d at 1225. The employees in Clements provided recruiting services to the Army on behalf of their employer, Serco. Id. Serco had erroneously classified these employees as exempt under the “outside salesmen” exemption. Id. at 1227; cf. 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). The employees claimed a 150% multiplier applied because the employer and employees had not agreed on whether overtime compensation was owed. Clements, 530 F.3d at 1230. In affirming the use of a 50% multiplier in calculating the unpaid overtime compensation, the Tenth Circuit cited 29 C.F.R. § 778.114, the First Circuit’s decision in Valerio, and our decision in Bailey v. County of Georgetown, 94 F.3d 152, 155-57 (4th Cir.1996).   Clements, 530 F.3d at 1230. The Tenth Circuit found the lack of a clear and mutual understanding on the overtime premium to be “irrelevant as to whether the Employees understood they were being paid on a salaried … basis.” Id. at 1231. In Clements, the Tenth Circuit did not cite, much less discuss, Overnight Motor.

In Urnikis-Negro, the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s award of a 50% overtime premium to calculate unpaid overtime compensation in a mistaken exemption classification case. 616 F.3d at 684. However, the court rejected the district court’s retroactive application of 29 C.F.R. § 778.114, finding it a “dubious source of authority for calculating a misclassified employee’s damages.” Id. at 679. Instead, the court relied on Overnight Motor. Id. at 680-84. The court held that when an employer and employee agree that a fixed salary will constitute payment at the regular rate for all hours worked and the rate is not lower than the minimum wage, a court should rely on Overnight Motor to calculate unpaid overtime compensation under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Id. Moreover, in such a situation, the court calculates the unpaid overtime compensation using a 50% multiplier rather than a 150% multiplier. See id.

In addition to these decisions from our sister circuits, the Department of Labor also has approved using a 50% overtime premium to calculate unpaid overtime compensation in a mistaken exemption classification case. See Retroactive Payment of Overtime and the Fluctuating Workweek Method of Payment, Wage and Hour Opinion Letter, FLSA 2009-3 (Dep’t of Labor Jan. 14, 2009). The DOL issued the opinion letter in response to an employer who asked how to compensate employees mistakenly classified as exempt. Id. at 1. In the opinion letter, the DOL states that “because the fixed salary covered whatever hours the employees were called upon to work in a workweek; the employees will be paid an additional one-half their actual regular rate for each overtime hour …; and the employees received and accepted the salary knowing that it covered whatever hours they worked,” a retroactive payment of overtime using the 50% multiplier conforms with FLSA requirements. Id. at 2.

Here, the district court did not apply 29 C.F.R. § 778.114 to this mistaken exemption classification case. Rather, the district court relied on the logical implications of Overnight Motor to calculate unpaid overtime compensation under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Desmond, 661 F.Supp.2d at 584. The district court found that there was an agreement that the fixed weekly salary covered all hours worked. Id. The district court then reasoned that Overnight Motor’s regular-rate determination implies the previously paid weekly salary covers the base compensation for all hours worked. Id. Thus, the district court concluded that it need only award 50% of the regular rate to provide the employees their “unpaid overtime compensation” under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Id.

Appellants disagree and insist that such a reliance on Overnight Motor improperly expands federal common law. They also (confusingly) argue that Chevron deference to 29 C.F.R. § 778.114 requires courts to use a 150% multiplier and that if employers are allowed to retroactively apply section 778.114 in mistaken exemption classification cases, employers have no motive to pay for overtime as it accrues, effectively treating nonexempt employees as if they were exempt. In appellants’ view, such a holding will create an incentive for employers to pay a fixed weekly salary, never to pay overtime, and then simply pay a 50% premium on the regular rate if caught misclassifying non-exempt employees as exempt employees. Cf. 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1); 29 C.F.R. pt. 541 (white-collar exemption regulations).

As the district court held, appellants’ argument ignores the teaching of Overnight Motor. After all, in Overnight Motor, the Court recognized that employees and employers are free to agree to a reduced hourly wage in exchange for a fixed weekly salary, provided the fixed weekly salary covers all hours worked and meets minimum wage requirements. 316 U.S. at 580. In our view, the district court correctly concluded that Overnight Motor provides the appropriate method for calculating the unpaid overtime compensation under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) in this case. Tellingly, in Overnight Motor, the Court provided the formula to compute the overtime due an employee who was paid a fixed weekly salary intended to cover all hours worked. Overnight Motor, 316 U.S. at 580 n. 16. Although Overnight Motor concerned the more basic question of whether overtime compensation applies to those earning more than the minimum wage requirements in the FLSA, 316 U.S. at 575, it contains nothing to indicate why such a computation would not apply in determining unpaid overtime compensation under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) in a mistaken exemption classification case. Indeed, in Overnight Motor, the Court interpreted 29 U.S.C. § 207(a) and explained the meaning of “the regular rate at which he is employed,” and interpreted 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) and explained how to calculate “unpaid overtime compensation.” See Overnight Motor, 316 U.S. at 574 n. 2, 579-80.

Traditional principles of compensatory damages bolster this conclusion. Compensatory damages are “[d]amages sufficient in amount to indemnify the injured person for the loss suffered.” Black’s Law Dictionary 445 (9th ed.2009). Here, the former employees agreed to receive straight time pay for all hours worked in a given workweek and have already received such pay. Thus, the “loss suffered” is the 50% premium for their overtime hours. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s judgment about how to calculate unpaid overtime compensation under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).”

Currently, the plaintiffs in the 7th Circuit case, Urnikis-Negro v. Am. Family Prop. Servs., 616 F.3d 665 (7th Cir.2010), have filed a petition for cert in the Supreme Court, so the effect of the 4th Circuit’s holding may be should-lived.

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D.Minn.: “Insurance Investigators” Were Non-Exempt, Because Their Duties Lacked Independent Judgment and Discretion

Ahle v. Veracity Research Co.

Among other motions, the case was before the Court on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment.  Of note here, the parties asked the Court to determine whether Plaintiffs, who were “Insurance Investigators” qualified as Administrative Exempt or not.  Holding that their duties did not require the independent judgment and discretion necessary, the Court held that Plaintiffs were non-exempt under the FLSA.

Examining the Plaintiffs’ duties the Court explained:

“Veracity is a full-service investigative firm specializing in insurance defense investigations. Answer to Compl., Defenses and Am. Counterclaim (Counterclaim) [Docket No. 29] ¶ 5. Named Plaintiffs Ahle, Jordan, and Wiseman formerly worked as investigators for Veracity. Id. ¶¶ 6-8; Collective Action Compl. [Docket No. 1] ¶¶ 4-6. Approximately 150 other individuals have opted into this litigation. The plaintiff class members are current or former investigators for Veracity.

Veracity is hired by insurance companies, third-party administrators, and law firms to investigate suspect claims. Morgan Decl., May 13, 2010 [Docket No. 186], Ex. 1 (Foster Dep.) 45:22-46:8. Veracity categorizes its investigators by title and level; the titles and levels that are at issue in this litigation are surveillance investigators (levels 1-3), claims investigators (level 4), and senior field investigators (level 5). Morgan Decl., May 13, 2010, Ex. 2 (Doyle Dep.) 60:10-19. Surveillance investigators primarily work in the field conducting surveillance, undercover investigations, and background checks. Id. 50:15-21; Foster Aff ., July 7, 2009 [Docket No. 59], ¶ 7. Claims investigators generally perform the same duties as surveillance investigators, but they also interview witnesses, obtain statements, take photographs, and, occasionally, perform sales functions. Foster Aff., July 7, 2009, ¶¶ 8, 10-11. Senior field investigators supervise and manage surveillance and claims investigators in the field, train new investigators, and perform occasional promotion and sales duties. Id. ¶ 13. Thus, all of the titles and levels of investigators at issue have in common some surveillance duties, although the parties dispute whether the primary duty of investigators in each of these titles and levels is surveillance.

After receiving an assignment from Veracity but before driving to the surveillance site, the investigator typically completes several tasks including reviewing the assignment sheet, performing a background check on the subject, matching the name of the subject to an address, mapping out directions to the surveillance site, and ensuring that the investigator’s camera, laptop computer, and cellular phones are fully charged. Morgan Decl., May 13, 2010, Ex. 8 at VRC001063-64. According to Plaintiffs, investigators also are required to perform maintenance including cleaning the windows and filling the fuel tank on their vehicles before leaving for a surveillance site. Morgan Decl., May 13, 2010, Exs. 13, 14, ¶ 6. At the surveillance site, investigators monitor and video record the subject and take notes of their observations. Morgan Decl., May 13, 2010, Ex. 13, ¶ 5. Claims investigators may also interview witnesses, obtain statements, and collect documents. Foster Dep. 149:7-23.

Investigators record their activities in a daily investigative report (“DIR”). Morgan Decl., May 13, 2010, Exs. 13, 14 ¶ 7. An investigator’s DIR discloses when the investigator left home for the surveillance site, the drive time, the arrival time, observation notes, the departure time from the site, and the arrival time back at the investigator’s home. Id. Once completed, the investigator sends the DIR online to Veracity. Id. Investigators send any video recording taken during the day to their managers by depositing the tapes at a FedEx drop-off location. Id .

The dispute in this action centers on whether Plaintiffs, given their daily duties, were properly classified as FLSA “exempt” employees who are not required to be paid overtime for work in excess of forty hours per week. Based on Veracity’s founders’ view of the “industry standard,” Veracity classified its investigators as exempt when it began business in 1995. Doyle Dep. 15:10-17:6. Plaintiffs initiated this action on January 8, 2009, claiming that they were improperly classified as exempt and, therefore, were wrongfully denied compensation for overtime hours allegedly worked while employed by Veracity as investigators.”

After concluding that it lacked information sufficient to determine whether the second prong of the Administrative Exemption was met or not here, the Court held that Defendant could not, as a matter of law, establish that Plaintiffs’ activities required the independent judgment and discretion required for application of the exemption:

“Discretion and Independent Judgment

Although claims investigations is directly related to the management or general business operations of Veracity’s clients, such a primary duty must also involve the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance for claims investigators to meet the final element of the definition of administrative employees. DOL regulations explain that “the exercise of discretion and independent judgment involves the comparison and the evaluation of possible courses of conduct, and acting or making a decision after the various possibilities have been considered.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.202(a).

Factors to be considered when determining whether an employee exercises discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance include, but are not limited to: whether the employee has authority to formulate, affect, interpret, or implement management policies or operating practices; whether the employee carries out major assignments in conducting the operations of the business; whether the employee performs work that affects business operations to a substantial degree, even if the employee’s assignments are related to operation of a particular segment of the business; whether the employee has authority to commit the employer in matters that have significant financial impact; whether the employee has authority to waive or deviate from established policies and procedures without prior approval; whether the employee has authority to negotiate and bind the company on significant matters; whether the employee provides consultation or expert advice to management; whether the employee is involved in planning long- or short-term business objectives; whether the employee investigates and resolves matters of significance on behalf of management; and whether the employee represents the company in handling complaints, arbitrating disputes or resolving grievances. Id. § 541.202(b). “The exercise of discretion and independent judgment implies that the employee has the authority to make an independent choice, free from immediate direction or supervision,” but “employees can exercise discretion and independent judgment even if their decisions or recommendations are reviewed at a higher level,” and discretion and independent judgment can “consist of recommendations for action rather than the actual taking of action.” Id. § 541.202(c). However, “[t]he exercise of discretion and independent judgment must be more than the use of skill in applying well-established techniques, procedures or specific standards described in manuals or other sources.” Id . § 541.202(e).

In support of their argument that the duties of the claims investigators do not involve the exercise of discretion and independent judgment regarding matters of significance, Plaintiffs again cite Gusdonovich, as well as Fenton v. Farmers Insurance Exchange, 663 F.Supp.2d 718 (D.Minn.2009), a case from this district. In Gusdonovich, the court concluded that the insurance “investigators were merely applying their knowledge and skill in determining what procedure to follow, which … is not the exercise of discretion and independent judgment contemplated by the [DOL] regulation[s].” 705 F.Supp. at 265.

The plaintiffs in Fenton were insurance investigators employed by a company to investigate potentially fraudulent insurance claims. 663 F.Supp.2d at 721. The court held that the job duties of such “special investigators” did not involve a sufficient exercise of discretion and independent judgment to qualify for the administrative exemption. Id. at 726. Instead, the special investigators’ job duties were “sufficiently aligned with the employment circumstances” of (1) the insurance investigators who were the plaintiffs in Gusdonovich, (2) the employees performing background investigations discussed in the 2005 DOL Opinion Letter, and (3) the police investigations addressed in DOL regulation 29 C.F.R. § 541.3(b)(1). Id. at 726. In reaching that conclusion, the court noted that the employer’s written guidelines explained in great detail how the investigators should approach issues that often arise in conducting and documenting an investigation, there was “nothing in the residual discretion available to investigators that [was] sufficient to justify exemption,” and there was no dispute that the investigator’s subjective opinions and conclusions were excluded from their written reports. Id. at 726-27. In addition, written guidelines instructed the investigators to include, with equal detail and emphasis, all inculpating and exculpating information in their reports, and investigators had no authority to determine whether a claim should be denied or whether the insurance company should seek to negotiate a settlement. Id. at 727.

Like in Gusdonovich and Fenton, Plaintiffs’ duties as claims investigators for Veracity do not involve a sufficient degree of discretion and independent judgement with respect to matters of significance. Claims investigators do not have the discretion to decide when to conduct an investigation, where to conduct it, or the length of time to spend on it. Morgan Decl., May 13, 2010, Ex. 13, ¶ 6. In addition, Veracity does not allow claims investigators to (1) make any recommendations or give their opinions as to whether fraud occurred when submitting their DIRs or (2) recommend or participate in the decision whether to deny or pay a claim or whether to conduct further investigation. Id. ¶ 8. Furthermore, Plaintiffs’ declarations state that they received guidelines and manuals describing how claims investigations are conducted and that they are “expected to follow such guidelines and manuals when conducting day-to-day investigations.” Id. ¶ 11. For example, a Veracity document entitled “Introduction to Claims Investigation and Responsibilities” informs claims investigators as follows:

Your job will be to obtain facts that relate to a specific claim. This will include, but is not limited to, taking recorded statements from the person making the claim …, witnesses to the specific incident, [and] persons that may have direct knowledge about the incident…. Your responsibility is to get the facts of the case by means of questioning or research. At times you will be called upon to obtain needed documentation to include medical records, receipts …, employment information, and police reports. You will have to develop comprehensive investigative and communication skills, and you must be able to decide which leads must be followed, and which ones should be reported but need no further effort.

One of the most challenging areas of [your job as a claims investigator] will be your ability to transfer the information that you gather into a coherent and informative report…. [I]n most cases you will not have the opportunity to speak directly with the client and therefore your report must be accurate, concise, easily understood, and complete.  Morgan Decl., May 13, 2010, Ex. 9 at VRC001154.

The manual includes outlines to follow when taking a recorded statement in all investigations and in particular types of investigations (e.g., employment injuries, motor vehicle accidents resulting in deaths, products liability, property loss or theft, vehicle or property damage). Id. at VRC001167, 1176, 1216, 1230, 1233, 1240. Although claims investigators are not required to follow the outlines verbatim, the outlines do command, in several instances, that some specific information is not optional, employing language such as, “must be on every recorded statement,” “must be covered,” or “must be asked.” Id. at VRC001167, 1176, 1216, 1230, 1233, 1240. Furthermore, the outlines instruct investigators to “obtain all of the facts,” and remind the claims investigators that it is Veractiy’s responsibility to “obtain the information and then let the [client] and their legal department make the determination.” Id. at VRC001230.

The record establishes that (1) Veracity’s written guidelines explain in great detail how claims investigators should conduct an investigation, (2) the claims investigators are required to obtain all the facts regardless of their impact, and (3) the claims investigators do not include their own opinions, conclusions, or recommendations regarding the decision whether to pay or deny the claim. Because the claims investigators do not provide opinions and conclusions about their investigative observations, they are significantly different than the insurance investigators in Foster v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. See 695 F.Supp.2d 748, 761 (S .D.Ohio 2010) (concluding that genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether the plaintiffs, insurance investigators, exercised discretion and independent judgment because “[m]ost significantly, there is a factual dispute as to whether Special Investigators’ primary duty encompasses providing their opinions and conclusions regarding their investigative findings”). Admittedly, claims investigators do make decisions regarding the precise manner in which they conduct an investigation-creating action plans, deciding who to interview, what documents to review, what leads to follow, and whether to recommend hiring an expert-however, such decisions are more appropriately viewed as choices among “established techniques, procedures or specific standards described in manuals or other sources,” which do not amount to the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance. 29 C.F.R. § 541.202(a), (e); see also 2005 Opinion Letter at 4-5 (advising that “prioritizing the pursuit of particular leads, assessing whether the leads … have provided information that requires further investigation, determining which potential witnesses to see and which documents to review, and making similar decisions that promote effective and efficient use of … work time in performing assigned investigative activities” do not involve the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance); Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461 (1997) (stating that the DOL’s interpretation of its own regulations are “controlling unless plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation”).

The cases cited by Veracity are unavailing. In Stout v. Smolar, the court viewed evidence that a private investigator had the authority to make decisions as to how to “investigate the scene of an accident, including determining what materials to be preserved and whether expert witnesses would be required” as showing that the investigator exercised discretion and independent judgment. No. 1:05-CV-1202, 2007 WL 2765519, at *6 n. 2 (N.D.Ga. Sept. 18, 2007). The court also commented that treating insurance investigators as not qualifying for the administrative exemption “would appear contrary to the insurance claims adjuster example of administrative exemption cited by the [DOL].” Id. This Court finds more persuasive the reasoning in DOL regulations, cases such as Fenton, and the 2005 Opinion Letter, which suggest that having discretion over the types of matters discussed in Stout does not equate to having discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance. See Foster, 695 F.Supp.2d at 761 (recognizing, in light of the 2005 Opinion Letter, that deciding who to interview, what documents to review, what leads to pursue, and “similar tactical matters” were “fact-finding logistics [that] do not necessarily rise to the level of discretion and independent judgment contemplated by DOL regulations, for they do not amount to matters of significance”).

Equating Veracity’s claims investigators to claims adjusters is not a fair comparison or particularly helpful. The core function of a claims adjuster is to decide whether and to what extent an insurance claim should be paid, a task that requires considerable exercise of discretion on a matter of significance. Inclusion of the term “adjuster” in the title of the job strongly suggests that conclusion. All employees exercise some discretion in deciding how to perform their jobs, and the way in which they exercise that discretion likely will affect matters of significance. In the case of claims investigators, how they exercise their discretion in conducting an investigation will impact or affect how a claims adjuster working for one of Veracity’s clients decides the significant matter of the value of the claim. But an exercise of discretion that impacts or affects a matter of significance is not exercising discretion with respect to a matter of significance. If the rule were otherwise, all employees would arguably meet the third element of the definition of administrative employees. Because the analogy to claims adjusters is not persuasive, Veracity’s reliance on cases such as Roe-Midgett, 512 F.3d at 874, where the Seventh Circuit held that claims adjusters routinely used their discretion and independent judgment to make choices that impact damage estimates, settlement, and other matters of significance, does not alter the result here.

The Court concludes that Veracity has failed to demonstrate a triable issue as to whether the duties of claims investigators include the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance. Because claims investigators do not meet the third element of the definition in 29 C.F.R. § 541.200(a), they do not qualify for the administrative exemption.”

Not discussed here, the Court also held that the Plaintiffs lacked the requisite duties to be deemed outside sales exempt.  Further, the Court held that certain time claimed as compensable by the Plaintiffs was not and that the appropriate method for determining Plaintiffs damages–as “salaried misclassified” employees was the Fluctuating Workweek (“FWW”), adopting the reasoning in the recent Seventh Circuit decision discussed here.  Lastly, the Court denied Defendant’s motion for decertification of the collective action.

To read the entire decision, click here.

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7th Cir.: FWW Is Appropriate Method To Determine Unpaid Overtime Where Plaintiff Was Salaried Misclassified

Urnikis-Negro v. American Family Property Services

Although plaintiff Brenda Urnikis-Negro prevailed in her suit for overtime pay, she contended on appeal that the district court improperly calculated the amount of pay she was owed.  After a bench trial, the district court found that the Defendants, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as amended, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201, et seq. (“FLSA”), when they treated Urnikis-Negro as an administrative employee who was exempt from the overtime provisions of the statute. Urnikis-Negro v. Am. Family Prop. Servs., Inc., No. 06 C 6014, 2008 WL 5539823, at *5-*9 (N.D.Ill. Jul. 21, 2008); see 29 U.S.C. §§ 207, 216(b).  As a result of Defendants’ misclassification, Urnikis-Negro was never paid anything above her fixed salary for her overtime hours.

However, in calculating Urnikis-Negro’s regular rate of pay and thence the overtime to which she was entitled, the court used the fluctuating workweek (“FWW”) method set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 778.114(a), an interpretive rule promulgated by the Department of Labor. 2008 WL 5539823, at *11-*12.

Recognizing that section 778.114(a) itself does not provide the authority for applying the FWW method in a misclassification case, it applied the FWW anyway.  In a troubling opinion, the Court specifically stated that the FWW “is not a remedial measure that specifies how damages are to be calculated when a court finds that an employer has breached its statutory obligations.”

Nonetheless, the Court held that irrespective of the rule, it was appropriate for the district court to apply the FWW method in this case, citing the authority found in the Supreme Court’s decision in Overnight Motor Transp. Co. v. Missel, 316 U.S. 572, 62 S.Ct. 1216 (1942), superseded on other grounds by statute as stated in Trans World Air Lines, Inc. v. Thurston, 469 U.S. 111, 128 n. 22, 105 S.Ct. 613, 625 n. 22 (1985), “which approved this very method of calculating of an employee’s regular rate of pay and corresponding overtime premium. We therefore affirm the district court’s judgment.”

To read the entire decision, click here.

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