Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc.
Following a verdict/decision in the plaintiffs favor, the defendant appealed to the Ninth Circuit based on a variety of issues, both substantive and procedural. As discussed here, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower Court’s holding that the plaintiffs, reporters for a local Chinese-language newspaper were nonexempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and California Wage and Hour Law.
Reasoning that the plaintiff-reporters were not subject to the so-called “creative professional” exemption, the Court reasoned:
“CDN argues that the district court erred in holding on summary judgment that CDN’s reporters were non-exempt employees entitled to overtime. Specifically, CDN argues that its reporters were subject to the “creative professional exemption” and were therefore exempt employees not subject to FLSA and state-law overtime pay and break requirements. We review the district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. Bamonte v. City of Mesa, 598 F.3d 1217, 1220 (9th Cir.2010).
Federal law exempts employers from paying overtime to “any employee employed in a bona fide … professional capacity.” 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). To qualify as an exempt professional under federal law, an employee must be compensated “at a rate of not less than $455 per week,” and his or her “primary duty” must be the performance of exempt work. 29 C.F.R. §§ 541.300, 541.700. “[A]n employee’s primary duty must be the performance of work requiring invention, imagination, originality or talent in a recognized field of artistic or creative endeavor as opposed to routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical work.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.302(a). The exemption is construed narrowly against the employer who seeks to assert it. Cleveland v. City of Los Angeles, 420 F.3d 981, 988 (9th Cir.2005). California wage and hour law largely tracks federal law. See Industrial Welfare Commission Order 4-2001 § 1(A)(3)(b) (defining professional to include “an employee who is primarily engaged in the performance of … [w]ork that is original and creative in character in a recognized field of artistic endeavor … and the result of which depends primarily on the invention, imagination, or talent of the employee”); see also id. § 1(A)(3)(e) (directing that the exemption is “intended to be construed in accordance with … [inter alia, 29 C.F.R. § 541.302 ] as [it] existed as of the date of this wage order”).
As applied to journalists, the federal Department of Labor construed the “creative professional exemption” in a 2004 regulation:
Journalists may satisfy the duties requirements for the creative professional exemption if their primary duty is work requiring invention, imagination, originality or talent, as opposed to work which depends primarily on intelligence, diligence and accuracy. Employees of newspapers, magazines, television and other media are not exempt creative professionals if they only collect, organize and record information that is routine or already public, or if they do not contribute a unique interpretation or analysis to a news product. Thus, for example, newspaper reporters who merely rewrite press releases or who write standard recounts of public information by gathering facts on routine community events are not exempt creative professionals. Reporters also do not qualify as exempt creative professionals if their work product is subject to substantial control by the employer. However, journalists may qualify as exempt creative professionals if their primary duty is performing on the air in radio, television or other electronic media; conducting investigative interviews; analyzing or interpreting public events; writing editorials, opinion columns or other commentary; or acting as a narrator or commentator. 29 C.F.R. § 541.302(d) (2004). Unlike the “interpretation” it replaced, the 2004 regulation was promulgated pursuant to notice and comment rulemaking and therefore has the force of law. See 69 Fed.Reg. 22122, 22157-58 (Apr. 23, 2004). In promulgating the new regulation, the Department of Labor explained that “[t]he majority of journalists, who simply collect and organize information that is already public, or do not contribute a unique or creative interpretation or analysis to a news product, are not likely to be exempt.” Id. at 22158. Although we have not decided a case applying the creative professional exemption to journalists, other courts have explored the circumstances under which print journalists qualify for the exemption. In Reich v. Gateway Press, Inc., 13 F.3d 685 (3d Cir.1994), the Third Circuit concluded that none of the reporters at a chain of nineteen local weeklies was exempt. The newspapers largely contained “information about the day-to-day events of their respective local communities … overlooked by the Pittsburgh metropolitan daily press.” Id. at 688. The reporters primarily generated articles and features using what they knew about the local community, spent 50-60% of their time accumulating facts, and mostly filed recast press releases or information taken from public records. They wrote a feature article or editorial about once per month. Id. at 689. The court held that they were among the majority of reporters who were non-exempt. Id. at 699-700. It noted that the work was not “the type of fact gathering that demands the skill or expertise of an investigative journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer or Washington Post, or a bureau chief for the New York Times.” Id. at 700.
In Reich v. Newspapers of New England, Inc., 44 F.3d 1060 (1st Cir.1995), the First Circuit similarly held that reporters and other employees employed by a small community newspaper were not exempt professionals. The day-to-day duties of the reporters involved “general assignment work” covering hearings, criminal and policy activity, and legislative proceedings and business events. Employees were not “asked to editorialize about or interpret the events they covered.” Id. at 1075. They, too, were therefore among the majority of reporters who were not exempt, even though their work occasionally demonstrated creativity, invention, imagination, or talent. Id.
By comparison, in Sherwood v. Washington Post, 871 F.Supp. 1471, 1482 (D.D.C.1994), the district court held that a Washington Post reporter whose “job required him to originate his own story ideas, maintain a wide network of sources, write engaging, imaginative prose, and produce stories containing thoughtful analysis of complex issues” was exempt. As a high-level investigative journalist who had held multiple positions of prominence at one of the nation’s top newspapers, the reporter was the sort of elite journalist whom the creative professional exemption was intended to cover.
The parties in this case submitted extensive evidence on summary judgment. Reporters stated in their depositions that they wrote between two and four articles per day, and that they very seldom did investigative reporting. The reporters proposed articles, but the editors gave considerate direction and frequently assigned the topics. One reporter explained that with having to write so much, “you didn’t have enough time to-really analyze anything.” Some time was spent rewriting press releases. There were no senior reporters or others with distinctive titles, and each of the reporters performed essentially the same tasks.
Editors’ declarations submitted by CDN, on the other hand, stated that articles “include background, analysis and perspective on events and news,” that CDN employs some of the most talented reporters in the Chinese newspaper industry, and that the reporters have extensive control over their time, pace of work, and ideas for articles to write. They stated that reporters must cultivate sources, sift through significant amounts of information, and analyze complicated issues. Several editors stated that they approved more than 90% of the topics suggested by reporters. Reporters’ salaries ranged from $2,060 to $3,700 per month.
Although the evidence submitted revealed disputes over how to characterize CDN’s journalists, we agree with the district court that, even when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to CDN, the reporters do not satisfy the criteria for the creative professional exemption. CDN’s Monterey Park (Los Angeles) operation, with twelve to fifteen reporters and a local circulation of 30,000, is not quite as small or unsophisticated as the community newspapers described in the Newspapers of New England and Gateway Press cases. But CDN is much closer to the community newspapers described in those cases than to the New York Times or Washington Post. As the district court explored in detail, the materials submitted on summary judgment make clear that CDN’s articles do not have the sophistication of the national-level papers at which one might expect to find the small minority of journalists who are exempt. Moreover, the intense pace at which CDN’s reporters work precludes them from engaging in sophisticated analysis. CDN’s reporters’ primary duties do not involve “conducting investigative interviews; analyzing or interpreting public events; [or] writing editorial[s], opinion columns or other commentary,” 29 C.F.R. § 541 .302(d), even if they engage in these activities some of the time. Indeed, many CDN articles may be characterized as “standard recounts of public information [created] by gathering facts on routine community events,” id., as opposed to the product of in-depth analysis. Characterizing CDN journalists as exempt would therefore be inconsistent with the Department of Labor’s intent that “the majority of journalists … are not likely to be exempt,” 69 Fed.Reg. at 22158, and with the requirement that FLSA exemptions be construed narrowly.
The evidence before the district court did not create a genuine issue of material fact as to the reporters’ status. We therefore affirm the district court’s determination on summary judgment that CDN’s reporters were non-exempt employees who were entitled to the protections of the FLSA and California law.”
Not discussed here, the Court also held that the certification of both a collective action of the FLSA claims and a class action of the California state law claims was within the court’s discretion, as was the lower court’s decision to invalidate many opt-out forms received in response to the initial class action notice, in response to what it believed was coercion from the defendant employer.
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