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Home » Exemptions » E.D.Ark.: “Payroll Manager” Demonstrated Lack Of Discretion And Independent Judgment; Defendant’s SJ Motion On Administrative Exemption Denied

E.D.Ark.: “Payroll Manager” Demonstrated Lack Of Discretion And Independent Judgment; Defendant’s SJ Motion On Administrative Exemption Denied

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Andrew Frisch

Reedy v. Rock-Tenn Co. of Arkansas

Plaintiff was, at points relevant to this case, Defendant’s “payroll manager.” The case was before the Court on Defendant’s Motion for summary judgment, based on Defendant’s assertion that Plaintiff was exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions under the administrative exemption. Finding issues of fact as to whether Plaintiff had the requisite discretion and independent judgment, the Court denied Defendant’s Motion.

The Court recited the following relevant facts, “Dolores Reedy worked at Rock-Tenn’s folding carton plant in Conway, Arkansas, from June 1986 until March 15, 2007, when she voluntarily resigned. Reedy, who has no college degree or formal accounting training, began as a temporary employee and later worked full-time as a payroll clerk. Rock-Tenn originally treated her as an hourly employee and paid her overtime. At some point, Reedy acquired the title of “Payroll Manager,” was paid on a salary basis, and stopped receiving overtime compensation.

Reedy was responsible for Rock-Tenn’s payroll. Rock-Tenn hired several assistants to work with Reedy in the payroll department, including Linda Suggs, Carolyn Hansen, and Denise Bent. Sometimes assistants worked only as temporary employees. Reedy’s responsibilities in the payroll department included maintaining employee files; wage garnishments; referring Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) matters to her immediate supervisor, Ken Hogan, or the Benefit Services Center; completing some Employment Eligibility Verification forms based on the documents in employees’ files; and responding to requests for information from the Arkansas Employment Security Department. At some point, Reedy composed a policy reference book for the payroll department.

Reedy says that after she stopped receiving overtime pay, she continued to log her hourly time and report her time to Hogan. She says she spoke with someone in Rock-Tenn’s corporate office about whether she should be exempt from overtime compensation under FLSA. Reedy also says that she and Hogan attended a class in which the instructors conducted an exercise to determine which persons were exempt under the FLSA, and Reedy says that at the end of the exercise she was in the group of persons who were not exempt. Reedy says that she discussed the exercise with Hogan, but Rock-Tenn made no changes to her exempt status.”

After a recitation of the relevant law, the Court applied same stating, “Reedy’s job title of “payroll manager,” standing alone, is of little use in determining whether she was exempt, and the Court must examine evidence relating to the nature of Reedy’s duties. See Lentz v. Hospitality Staffing Solutions, LLC, 2008 WL 269607, at *4 (N.D.Ga. Jan. 28, 2008). A reasonable jury could conclude that Reedy did not exercise discretion and independent judgment in her job as payroll manager. Therefore, the nature of Reedy’s duties and her position relative to the payroll assistants is a disputed issue of fact.

Regarding Reedy’s investigatory duties, Rock-Tenn asserts that she investigated alleged pay discrepancies and notified management if there were any problems requiring remedial action. Rock-Tenn argues that her investigatory duties were similar to those of the postal workers in Dymond, wherein the Eighth Circuit held that postal workers exercised discretion and independent judgment inasmuch as they determined when a situation required immediate action and whether an alleged violation was minor or required reporting to the United States Attorney for prosecution. Dymond, 670 F.2d at 95. Reedy responds that her investigatory responsibilities were distinguishable from the postal workers in Dymond.Reedy says that employees came to her about payroll discrepancies because she was the one who computed payroll, that she had no authority to issue a corrective check, and that she had to receive permission from management before taking any remedial action.

Reedy’s deposition testimony does not demonstrate that her payroll duties required independent judgment or discretion. She reviewed the payroll records in response to complaints; but she was not authorized to proceed with remedial action unless approved by management. Her responsibilities were more clerical than investigatory, unlike those of the postal inspectors in Dymond.Rock-Tenn has failed to show that, as a matter of law, her authority to investigate and remedy payroll discrepancies required the exercise of discretion and independent judgment.

As to the completion of I-9s, Reedy responds that she received no special training qualifying her to recognize a fake employment form, that her job was merely to check the documents in the employee’s personnel file, and that she then signed the I-9s to indicate that Rock-Tenn did in fact have the proper documentation on a particular employee. Rock-Tenn replies that the fact that Reedy signed the I-9s under penalty of perjury-swearing that she had examined the employee’s documents-means that she had to compare and evaluate possible courses of conduct and use her common sense. Rock-Tenn cites to Haywood v. North Am. Van Lines, 121 F.3d 1066, 1073 (7th Cir.1997), for the proposition that an employee who uses common sense satisfies the discretion and independent judgment prong of the administrative employee exception. In that case, however, the Seventh Circuit mentioned “common sense” in a footnote, referencing the employer’s guidelines which informed its employees, whose job it was to negotiate with customers, that they had considerable latitude to negotiate and were to “just use [their] common sense.” Haywood, 121 F.3d at 1073 n. 8. The Seventh Circuit did not hold that every employee who exercises common sense in the performance of a job duty is exercising discretion and independent judgment, and Rock-Tenn has cited no cases holding that completing I-9s amounts to exercising discretion and independent judgment. Furthermore, other than the I-9s and Hogan’s affidavit, there is no other evidence relating to Reedy’s completion of the I-9s, and Reedy was not questioned about the I-9s in her deposition testimony.

As to Reedy’s communications with the Arkansas Employment Security Department, Reedy seemingly characterizes those communications as routine clerical work. Rock-Tenn, relying on Hogan’s affidavit, asserts that Reedy’s responses to the Department’s requests for information often triggered Rock-Tenn’s responsibility to pay unemployment benefits. However, Rock-Tenn offers no authority for the proposition that acting as a liaison between the employer and a governmental agency in and of itself rises to the level of exercising discretion and independent judgment. It is a disputed issue of fact whether Reedy’s work in this area was routine clerical work, providing information to a state department when requested, or actually involved discretion and independent judgment.

Regarding Reedy’s understanding and application of the FMLA, Reedy responds that she was merely instructed to look for certain “red flags” that could indicate that an employee might be asking for FMLA-qualifying leave. Reedy points to Hogan’s deposition, in which he stated that Reedy would bring a potential FMLA-related request to him, and he would make the final decision. Reedy also states that FMLA issues were ultimately referred to a separate entity, the Benefit Services Center. Therefore, Reedy argues, she had no authority to exercise discretion or make decisions regarding FMLA matters. Rock-Tenn replies that Reedy exercised discretion because she stated in deposition testimony that she “felt like [she] was understanding when to ask [Hogan] if [she] should offer an employee FMLA.”Because Reedy stated that she felt like she understood FMLA well enough to notify Hogan of a potential FMLA-related request, Rock-Tenn argues that she was exercising discretion and independent judgment. Reedy characterizes her testimony as showing that she merely looked for “red flags,” whereas Rock-Tenn characterizes her testimony as Reedy touting her ability to interpret and apply the FMLA. After reviewing Reedy’s deposition testimony, it is unclear that either party’s characterization is completely accurate. Thus, the degree to which Reedy actually exercised discretion and independent judgment in reviewing leave requests for FMLA issues and the nature of Reedy’s review of those requests are issues of fact best left to a jury to resolve.

As to Reedy’s job questionnaire responses indicating that she engaged in policy clarification and research, Reedy responds that Rock-Tenn has cited no authority for the proposition that doing research requires the use of discretion or independent judgment with respect to matters of significance. Reedy also states that she eventually had to suspend her research due to other obligations, and Rock-Tenn offers no evidence showing that Reedy actually engaged in research and policy clarification during the period of time relevant to her lawsuit. Furthermore, the record is inadequate to show that whatever research and policy clarification Reedy performed involved the exercise of discretion and independent judgment.

Finally, regarding Reedy’s involvement in garnishing wages, Reedy responds that her duties consisted of merely following the court orders and company procedure, and that Rock-Tenn offers no authority for the proposition that performing wage garnishments amounts to exercising discretion or independent judgment. Rock-Tenn argues that Reedy admitted in deposition testimony that she followed the applicable garnishment laws, and that following those laws required the use of discretion and independent judgment insofar as she was required to “interpret, construe, and explain the laws, policies, and regulations applicable to her work.”In her deposition testimony, however, Reedy stated only that she followed the court orders and the applicable laws regarding precedence when there were multiple garnishments. Reedy did not talk about interpreting, construing, and explaining the laws, policies, and regulations applicable to her work, as Rock-Tenn contends. Rather, it appears from her deposition testimony that, in her position as payroll manager, Reedy simply followed the court orders she received regarding garnishments and then followed the proper procedures where there were multiple garnishments. The nature of Reedy’s work with garnishments and the extent to which her garnishment work involved discretion or independent judgment are disputed issues of fact for a jury to decide.

In summary, issues of fact remain regarding the nature of Reedy’s duties and the extent to which they involved the exercise of discretion or independent judgment.”

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