Fenton v. Farmers Ins. Exchange
Farmers Insurance Exchange (“FIE”) is an inter-insurance exchange, or reciprocal, organized in California. FIE employs special investigators who investigate potentially fraudulent insurance claims. Special investigator Michael Fenton alleges that he and other FIE special investigators routinely work more than forty hours per week, but are improperly classified as “exempt” from overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Fenton and twenty other named plaintiffs bring this collective action challenging this practice on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated special investigators. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Both Plaintiffs and Defendant moved for summary judgment. Both motions were granted in part and denied in part. Significantly, as discussed here though, Plaintiffs were found to be non-exempt based on their duties performed (and entitled to overtime).
The Court recited the following facts as pertinent to its decision regarding Plaintiffs’ non-exempt status, “FIE is a reciprocal or inter-insurance exchange that sells insurance policies throughout the county. As a reciprocal exchange company, FIE is owned by its policyholders, or “subscribers,” who exchange contracts with one another and, by pooling their resources, insure one another against certain losses. FIE, whether on its own or through its related companies, performs all the functions of a typical insurance company, including selling policies, contracting with individual agents who sell and service policies, procuring reinsurance, and adjusting claims.
FIE’s special investigators-the plaintiffs in this action-investigate the factual basis for subscribers’ insurance claims, to determine whether the claims should be paid. The claim investigation process and the job duties of the investigators are critical to this action, and are described in detail below.
The claims investigations process begins with FIE’s claims representatives, who work out of a different business unit than the investigators, and flag claims that exhibit potential signs of fraud. (Morgan Aff., Docket No. 94, at 127-28.) The claims representatives then use a shared electronic database to refer the flagged claims to an FIE unit staffed by the plaintiffs. ( Id. at 105.) Managers in this unit then assign the claims to specific investigators. ( Id. at 107.)
After an investigator receives an assignment, he or she is required to promptly contact the claims representative who referred the claim. ( Id. at 115-16.) The investigator is required to consider the specific issues flagged by the claims representative, and attempt to develop a plan to investigate those issues. ( Id.; Morgan Aff., Docket No. 94, Ex. F, at 74.) While investigators may occasionally suggest an additional fraud indicator to pursue, they do not reshape the scope of an investigation without first getting the approval of the claims representative or their supervisor. (Morgan Aff., Docket No. 116, Ex. 7, at 44 (“It’s [the claims representative’s] file.”); id. Ex. 2, at 38 (indicating that investigation plans are “always” sent to supervisors for approval).) In addition, while investigators may recommend that a claim does not require the work of an investigator, the final decision about whether to close an investigation is made by supervisors or claims representatives. (Ashbridge Decl., Docket No. 41, ¶ 18.)
Plaintiffs’ investigations often involve taking photographs of relevant materials; retrieving police or fire reports and other records; and interviewing the claimant and other witnesses. ( Id. ¶ 19.) Investigators also ensure that FIE complies with California’s requirement that suspected insurance fraud be reported to the state. See
Cal. Ins.Code § 1872.4. While plaintiffs may recommend that FIE use an expert to evaluate an incident, this determination is ultimately made by the claims representative. (Morgan Aff., Docket No. 116, Ex. 2, at 48.) In addition, while plaintiffs encounter new leads on occasion in the course of their investigations, they are not to pursue those leads without permission of the claims representative or a supervisor. (Morgan Aff., Docket No. 94, Ex. F, at 75.)
When an investigator believes that an investigation is complete, he or she contacts the claims representative to determine if the representative would like him or her to investigate further. (Morgan Aff., Docket No. 116, Ex. 12, at 158.) Once the claims representative approves the closing of the investigation, the investigators are required to submit an exhaustive file of their research materials, including “a list of all completed tasks (or an explanation of why a task was not completed), a report of any inconsistencies, discrepancies, and/or significant findings (both inculpating and exculpating); [and] a complete summary of the entire investigation.” (Ashbridge Decl., Docket No. 41, ¶ 22.) In addition, although investigators describe coming to credibility determinations after interviews with witnesses or claimants, and occasionally share these impressions in informal conversations with the assigning claims representatives, “the special investigator’s subjective opinions or conclusions are excluded from [these] written reports,” and investigators do not otherwise draft recommendations about whether a claim should be paid. ( Id. ¶ 21; Morgan Aff., Docket No. 94, Ex. A, at 146.)
Investigators are required to open new investigations at a rate of 12.5 per month, and must close each investigation within fourteen days. (Morgan Aff., Docket No. 94, Ex. 11, at 46.) These investigations are their primary job duty. (Ashbridge Decl., Docket No. 41, ¶ 6.) Investigators are also required to randomly review claim files to look for fraud indicators, an activity which accounts for 5% of their overall performance rating, (Morgan Aff., Docket No. 94, Ex. P, at 7), and occasionally conduct training for claims representatives about insurance fraud awareness.
FIE randomly subjects plaintiffs’ work product to Quality Assurance (“QA”) review. The results of QA reviews constitute 50% of FIE’s overall evaluation of an investigator’s performance. ( Id .) The guidelines for performing a QA review are nine pages long, and include dozens of specific criteria that are used to evaluate an investigation’s quality. (Moran Aff., Docket No. 94, Ex. O.) The QA guidelines give specific timelines for investigators’ work, state twenty-five separate steps that investigators should consider in the course of their investigations, and state nineteen requirements for investigators’ written reports. ( Id.) The QA guidelines add that the investigators’ “purpose is to provide … factual information that allows the Claims Professionals … to make good decisions, not tell them what decision to make, or provide conjecture on what really happened.” ( Id.)”
Discussing the relevant law the Court stated, “The FLSA delegates authority to define the scope of its exemptions to the Secretary of Labor (“Secretary”). 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). In accordance with that authority, the Secretary has established the “short duties test,” which is used to determine whether an employee earning more than $455 per week qualifies for the administrative exemption. To qualify as exempt, an employee’s primary duty must (1) consist of the performance of office or non-manual work “directly related to the management or general business operations of the employer or the employer’s customers”; and (2) include “the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance.” 29 C.F.R. § 541 .200(a). The Secretary further explains:
The phrase ‘directly related to the management or general business operations’ refers to the type of work performed by the employee. To meet this requirement, an employee must perform work directly related to assisting with the running or servicing of the business as distinguished, for example, from working on a manufacturing production line or selling a product in a retail or service establishment.29 C.F.R. § 541.201(a). In addition, 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. The term “matters of significance” refers to the level of importance or consequence of the work performed.
29 C.F.R. § 541.202(a). The Secretary adds that whether an employee exercises sufficient discretion and independent judgment depends on factors such as “whether the employee has authority to waive or deviate from established policies and procedures without prior approval [and] whether the employee has authority to negotiate and bind the company on significant matters.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.202(b). In other words, “[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.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.202(e). The regulations go on to explain how these provisions apply to several specific jobs. For example, insurance claims adjusters generally are exempt where:
their duties include activities such as interviewing insureds, witnesses and physicians; inspecting property damage; reviewing factual information to prepare damage estimates; evaluating and making recommendations regarding coverage of claims; determining liability and total value of a claim; negotiating settlements; and making recommendations regarding litigation. 29 C.F.R. 541.203(a). In accordance with this standard, the Ninth Circuit has determined that FIE’s claims representatives-the employees to whom plaintiffs deliver their investigation results-are exempt. See In re Farmers Ins. Exch., 481 F.3d 1119 (9th Cir.2007). The Secretary clarifies, however, that “ordinary inspection work,” involving well-established techniques and procedures … catalogued and described in manuals or other sources” are not exempt. 29 C.F.R. § 541.203(g). Similarly, the Secretary has specifically indicated that investigators working in law enforcement are not exempt where they “perform work such as … conducting investigations or inspections for violations of law; performing surveillance … interviewing witnesses … preparing investigative reports; or other similar work.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.3(b)(1).
In arguing that plaintiffs are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements, FIE relies heavily on the legal treatment of claims adjustors, both in the regulation quoted above, and in case law. See, e.g., McAllister, 325 F.3d at 999-1002 (finding an insurance claim “coordinator” exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements). Plaintiffs respond that their responsibilities are closer to those of mere investigators or inspectors, who are generally not exempt. In addition to the regulations quoted above, plaintiffs also point to an Opinion Letter issued by the Department of Labor, addressing employees who perform background investigations on federal employees seeking security clearances. See
Opinion Letter Fair Labor Standards Act, 2005 WL 3308592 (Dep’t of Labor Aug. 19, 2005); Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461 (1997) (indicating that the Secretary’s interpretations of her own regulations are controlling unless they are plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulations). The Secretary confirmed that these investigators are not exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements, after noting a list of job responsibilities that are at least as significant as those at issue here. 2005 WL 3308592. Those responsibilities included (1) gathering and checking public records; (2) interviewing witnesses; (3) making decisions about whether to report security threats to the Defense Security Service (“DSS”); (4) determining what leads to follow; (5) resolving discrepancies in information with limited guidance; (6) stating whether a witness is credible; and (7) providing factual information to DSS so it can make a final determination about whether an individual should receive a security clearance. Id. The DOL explained:
[P]lanning one’s own workload, such as prioritizing the pursuit of particular leads, assessing whether the leads provided are in the Investigator’s area of responsibility, or 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 that individual’s own work time in performing assigned investigative activities, do not constitute exercising discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance. 2005 WL 3308592 (internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis original).
Plaintiffs also note that at least one federal case has dealt specifically with the classification of employees hired to investigate insurance claims. In Gusdonovich v. Business Information Co., the court considered the status of employees whose primary responsibilities were “the search of public records, the serving of subpoenas and orders, surveillance, [and] the interrogation of witnesses.” 705 F.Supp. 262, 263 (W.D.Pa.1985). The investigators’ work was subject to review by supervisors, who assessed whether the scope of their investigations stayed within appropriate parameters. Id. at 264. The court determined that in those circumstances, the employees did not exercise sufficient discretion and independent judgment to satisfy the short duties test. The court explained that in light of the extensive oversight over the investigators, their fact-gathering merely involved “applying their knowledge and skill in determining what procedure to follow,” as opposed to any bona fide exercise of discretion and independent judgment. Id. at 265.
The Court agrees that plaintiffs’ job duties and FIE’s constraints on their discretion are sufficiently aligned with the employment circumstances of (1) the insurance investigators discussed in Gusdonovich, and (2) the employees performing background investigations and police investigations addressed by the Secretary, for plaintiffs to be non-exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements as a matter of law. Specifically, the Court concludes that the record demonstrates as a matter of law that plaintiffs do not “exercise … discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.200(a).
In reaching this conclusion, the Court begins with FIE’s extensive QA review guidelines, which explain in great detail how plaintiffs should approach dozens of issues that typically arise in the performance and documentation of investigations. ( See Morgan Aff., Docket No. 94, Ex. O.) Even though this document formally functions as guidance for how to evaluate investigators, rather than as guidance for how to perform investigations, deposition testimony demonstrates that investigators are well aware of it. ( See, e.g., Morgan Aff., Docket No. 94, Ex. H, at 92 (noting that one employee creates his own checklists to match the QA guidelines).) In light of the fact that QA reviews constitute 50% of an employee’s overall performance assessment, it is unsurprising that their detailed criteria attract investigators’ fixed attention, and it is clear that they are relevant to this Court’s application of the short duties test. ( See, e.g., Morgan Aff., Docket No. 94, Ex. H, at 92 (noting that one employee creates his own checklists to match the QA guidelines)); see also Gusdonovich, 705 F.Supp. at 265 (treating after-the-fact review as relevant to the scope of an employee’s discretion).
To be clear, FIE is correct that the mere fact that plaintiffs effectively operate in the shadow of an employment manual is not enough, on its own, to demonstrate that they are not exempt. See, e.g., McAllister, 325 F.3d at 1001 (“Just because McAllister was required to follow detailed manuals does not mean she did not exercise discretion and independent judgment.”); Cheatham v. Allstate Ins. Co., 465 F.3d 578, 585 (5th Cir.2006) (“[T]he requirement that Allstate adjusters must consult with manuals or guidelines does not preclude their exercise of discretion and independent judgment.”). Indeed, it is not difficult to conceive of circumstances where even extensive guidance could nonetheless leave employees with considerable discretion on matters of significance. See McAllister, 325 F.3d at 1001. Here, however, the Court finds nothing in the residual discretion available to investigators that is sufficient to justify exemption. Most significantly, FIE concedes that the investigators’ subjective opinions and conclusions are excluded from their written reports. (Ashbridge Decl., Docket No. 41, ¶ 21.) This is squarely confirmed in a passage from the QA review quoted above, which flatly states that the investigators’ “purpose is to provide … factual information that allows the Claims Professionals … to make good decisions, not tell them what decision to make, or provide conjecture on what really happened.” (Morgan Aff., Docket No. 94, Ex. O.) The guidelines add that “[a]ll inculpating and exculpating information must be reported in equal detail and emphasis,” and “[o]pinions and/or speculative ‘what if’ scenarios are not acceptable.” ( Id.) While employees do not necessarily need to make final decisions in order to be exempt, see
29 C.F.R. § 541.202(c), this explanation of the investigator’s responsibilities-in conjunction with the requirement that investigators provide the claims representatives with any and all documents that they gathered during their investigation ( id. (“All reports must be attached to the file, even if the result was no information available.”))-sufficiently demonstrates that their primary role is simply to gather facts and present them for someone else to analyze. They have no authority to determine whether a claim is covered or whether FIE should seek to negotiate a settlement, and-while their thoughts on these types of higher-level decisions may come up in informal conversation-any minor role they play in such discussions is plainly not among their “primary” duties. Cf. McAllister, 325 F.3d at 1001 (finding claims adjusters exempt despite their compliance with manuals where they had authority to settle claims of up to $250,000); Cheatham, 465 F.3d at 586 (finding insurance employees exempt despite their compliance with manuals and guidelines where they had discretion to determine liability and negotiate settlements). In short, as in Gusdonovich and the Secretary’s analysis of government background investigators, it is clear that plaintiffs are limited to “applying well-established techniques” in developing an evidentiary record for claims representatives, and do not exercise sufficient discretion and independent judgment to meet the short duties test. 29 C.F.R. § 541.202(e).
As to the Secretary’s assessment of claims adjustors, which is relied on heavily by FIE, the Court simply adds that although an employee need not perform all of the duties of claims adjusters listed by the Secretary in order to qualify as exempt, see In re Farmers, 481 F.3d at 1129, that list includes a variety of significant, discretion-laden activities that are undisputedly not present here, such as “negotiating settlements” and “making recommendations regarding litigation.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.203(a). In short, while the Ninth Circuit was correct to apply this regulation to FIE’s claims representatives, this Court finds nothing in federal law that would justify extending it to the employees who merely gather facts for those representatives, particularly when those employees are formally barred from presenting their opinions about how to handle claims in their written reports. Accordingly, as to the question of whether plaintiffs are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements, plaintiffs’ motion is granted, and FIE’s motion is denied.”