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N.D.Cal.: Life Insurance Broker Not a “Retail or Service Establishment;” 7(i) Retail Sales Exemption Inapplicable
Burden v. SelectQuote Ins. Services
This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. As discussed here, Defendant, a life insurance agency, argued that plaintiffs, its life insurance brokers, were exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions pursuant to the so-called retail sales exemption. While the court held that defendant could make out 2 of the 3 elements required for application of the exemption, ultimately it held that the exemption was inapplicable because defendant lacked a retail concept.
Pursuant to Section 7(i), certain employees are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions if three conditions must be met: (1) the employee must be employed by a retail or service establishment; (2) the employee’s regular rate of pay must exceed one and one-half times the applicable minimum wage for every hour worked in a workweek in which overtime hours are worked; and (3) more than half the employee’s total earnings in a representative period must consist of commissions. Here, the court held that the defendant could not satisfy element (1) and therefore the exemption did not apply.
Analyzing the issue, the court reasoned:
“Section 779.317 expressly identifies “insurance” as being among the “list of establishments to which the retail concept does not apply.” 29 C.F.R. § 779.317 (identifying: “Brokers, custom house; freight brokers; insurance brokers, stock or commodity brokers” and “Insurance; mutual, stock and fraternal benefit, including insurance brokers, agents, and claims adjustment offices.”) (emphasis added). SelectQuote acknowledges that “[i]nsurance” and “insurance brokers” are expressly identified in § 779.317, but nonetheless asserts that § 779.317 is inapposite because it is operating a “new type of business” that is “not covered by the Insurance Industry exclusion from the ‘retail concept’ in the FLSA regulations.” Mot. at 18.
As support for its position, SelectQuote relies principally on two out-of-circuit cases, which ostensibly concluded that a business lacking a retail concept under § 779.317 may nonetheless qualify for the retail or service exemption. Mot. at 18–19. In Hodgson v. Centralized Servs., Inc., 457 F.2d 824 (4th Cir.1972), the court held that an income tax preparation service qualified as a retail or service establishment under the FLSA, notwithstanding a prior DOL interpretation stating that “accounting firms” lacked the retail concept. Id., 457 F.2d at 827. In reaching its decision, the court noted that the DOL’S pre–1949 exclusion of “accounting firms” should not “arbitrarily embrace the unsophisticated business activities of the defendants in an area of service which came into being and had developed throughout the country only during the past decade.” Id.
In Selz v. Investools, Inc., No. 2:09–CV–1042 TS, 2011 WL 285801 (D.Utah Jan.27, 2011), the court ruled that a company that marketed products and services to educate individuals on how to personally invest in exchange markets online and aid them in doing so did not qualify as one of the specific establishments exempt from the retail exception. While noting that that § 779.317 specifies that educational institutions, finance companies and investment counseling firms lack a retail concept, the employer, “as a marketer of materials that teach and aid individuals to do their own financial investing, does not fit into the traditional concept of an educational institution, such as a for-profit university; a finance company, such as a bank; or an investment counseling firm.” Id. at *6 (emphasis added). The court concluded that “marketing tools to aid individuals in independently investing personal funds is its own industry” and therefore § 779.317 was not a bar to the FLSA exemption afforded under 29 U.S.C. § 317(i). Id .
SelectQuote claims that like the businesses in Hodgson and Selz, it too has developed a business model that is not encompassed in § 779.317. According to SelectQuote, its direct marketing approach “turned the life insurance industry on its head” by having its agents contact prospective customers by telephone instead of in person-more like the independent broker model traditionally existing in the property and casualty insurance business. Mot. at 2. In SelectQuote’s words, “One of the old adages in the insurance industry before 1985 was that property and casualty insurance was bought and life insurance was sold. SelectQuote’s insight was to change that paradigm so that life insurance too could just be bought by the average consumer.” Id.
SelectQuote’s self-aggrandizing arguments for avoiding the preclusive effect of § 779.317 are unavailing. In both Hodgson and Selz, the type of businesses operated by the defendants did not previously exist. In Hodgson, the court noted that the defendant’s tax preparation service had then only come into existence within a relatively recent period of time. 457 F.2d at 827. Likewise, in Selz, the court focused on the fact that the defendant’s business of selling do-it-yourself investment materials did not fall under the rubric of a bank, finance company or educational institution. 2011 WL 285801, at *6. In contrast, SelectQuote’s business bears none of the hallmarks of a new type of business establishment. Although SelectQuote has changed the method by which an agent sells life insurance—namely, directly by telephone instead of face-to-face—the fact remains that SelectQuote is still selling life insurance.
Moreover, SelectQuote’s own statements purporting to explain why its business supposedly is so revolutionary underscores the logical flaws in its argument. Section 779.317 identifies “Insurance” and “insurance brokers”—not “life insurance” or “term life insurance”—as establishments lacking a retail concept. See 29 C.F.R. § 779.317. Ironically, what SelectQuote claims to be “new” is not new at all; rather, as SelectQuote itself acknowledges, it simply is employing direct marketing methods that have long been used in the property and casualty insurance business. Singh Decl. ¶ 5. In other words, SelectQuote has made life insurance sales more like the traditional insurance brokerages, which clearly are within the scope of § 779.317. In Hodgson and Selz, the defendants changed a specifically-listed industry so fundamentally as to distinguish it from an industry listed in section 779.317. See Selz, 2011 WL 285801, at *6; Hodgson, 457 F.2d at 827. The logic of those cases does not apply in cases such as the present, where a company simply has changed its business to be more like a business which indisputably falls within the scope of § 779.317. For these reasons, the Court finds that SelectQuote falls within the insurance brokerage industry that section 779.317 finds to lack the requisite retail concept to qualify for an exemption from the FLSA’s overtime requirements.
As an alternative matter, SelectQuote argues that the Court should decline to apply § 779.317 on the ground that it lacks a rational basis for concluding that insurance establishments are not exempt as a retail or service establishment. Mot. at 20–22. According to SelectQuote, “[s]ection 779.317 is an ‘antiquated interpretation’ that does not take into account the fundamental changes over the past four decades regarding what is considered a ‘retail or service establishment,’ and it should not preclude SelectQuote from applying the section 7(i) exemption to Burden.” Id. at 22.
To support its position, SelectQuote points to cases where courts have declined to defer to the DOL’s list of non-retail establishments set forth in § 779.317 where there is no discernable rational basis for the DOL’s determination that type of business lacks a retail concept. See Martin v. The Refrigeration Sch., Inc. ., 968 F.2d 3 (9th Cir.1992) (holding that there was no rational basis for § 779.317‘s distinction that “[s]chools (except schools for mentally or physically handicapped or gifted children)” lack a retail concept); Reich v. Cruises Only, Inc., 1997 WL 1507504, at *5 (M.D.Fla. June 5, 1997) (finding that there was no rational basis for the DOL’s inclusion of “[t]ravel agencies” as establishments lacking a retail concept). However, these cases are distinguishable in that they did not involve the insurance industry. Moreover, the Supreme Court has held that the inclusion of financial companies, including insurance establishments, in § 779.317 is proper. See Mitchell, 359 U.S. at 290–91.
In light of the above, the Court finds that § 779.317 is a persuasive embodiment of the Department of Labor’s “body of experience and informed judgment.” See Skidmore, 323 U.S. at 140. The Court further finds that SelectQuote has not shown “plainly and unmistakably” that Burden’s exemption was within the “terms and spirit” of the FLSA. See Arnold, 361 U.S. at 392. As an insurance broker, SelectQuote is not a “retail or service establishment” and thus is not exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(a); 29 C.F.R. § 779.317. Therefore, SelectQuote is not entitled to summary judgment of Burden’s second cause of action. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).”
Click Burden v. SelectQuote Ins. Servicesto read the entire Order Granting in Part and Denying in Part Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. For further information on the the 7(i) exemption generally, see DOL Fact Sheet #20: Employees Paid Commissions By Retail Establishments Who Are Exempt Under Section 7(i) From Overtime Under The FLSA.