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9th Cir.: Social Workers Not Exempt Under FLSA; Not “Learned Professionals” Due to Non-Specialized Course of Studies
Solis v. Washington
This case was before the Ninth Circuit of the Secretary of Labor’s appeal of an order granting the defendant summary judgment. The court below had held that plaintiffs- social workers employed by the State of Washington- were exempt as so-called “learned professionals,” because a prerequisite for their position was a 4 year degree academic degree. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the court below misconstrued the 4 year degree (B.A.) requirement as having met the prong of the exemption pertaining to “advanced knowledge customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.” Specifically, the Ninth Circuit held that the plaintiffs were not “learned professionals,” because “the social worker positions at issue… require[d] only a degree in one of several diverse academic disciplines or sufficient coursework in any of those disciplines.” Thus, because the position did not require a degree in a specific discipline the Ninth Circuit held the position did not plainly and unmistakably come within the exemption.
After reviewing the relevant law from various circuits, the court held that the plaintiffs here did not meet the rigorous requirements for application of the “learned professional” exemption. The court reasoned:
“Whether a position requires a degree in a specialized area, see Reich, 993 F.2d at 739, or merely a specific course of study, see Rutlin, 220 F.3d at 737, a “prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction” must be sufficiently specialized and relate directly to the position. An educational requirement that may be satisfied by degrees in fields as diverse as anthropology, education, criminal justice, and gerontology does not call for a “course of specialized intellectual instruction.” Moreover, in this case the net is cast even wider by the acceptance of applicants with other degrees as long as they have sufficient coursework in any of these fields.
DSHS nonetheless contends that it has presented evidence that each of the acceptable degrees relates to the duties of its social workers. However, while social workers no doubt have diverse jobs that benefit from a multi-disciplinary background, the “learned professional” exemption applies to positions that require “a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction,” not positions that draw from many varied fields. While particular coursework in each of the acceptable fields may be related to social work, DSHS admits that it does not examine an applicant’s coursework once it determines that the applicant’s degree is within one of those fields. For the “learned professional” exemption to apply, the knowledge required to perform the duties of a position must come from “advanced specialized intellectual instruction” rather than practical experience. 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(d). The requirement of a degree or sufficient coursework in any of several fields broadly related to a position suggests that only general academic training is necessary, with the employer relying upon apprenticeship and experience to develop the advanced skills necessary for effective performance as a social worker.”
The court also discussed the significance of the fact that the defendant required each social worker to undergo a six-week on-the-job training session. Interestingly, whereas the trial court had relied on this in support of finding the plaintiffs to be exempt “learned professionals,” the Ninth Circuit reasoned that it actually supported a finding of non-exemption, stating:
“The district court also gave weight to the six-week formal training program required for accepted applicants. However, such a program was determined to be insufficient in Vela, where the court concluded that 880 hours of specialized training in didactic courses, clinical experience, and field internship did not satisfy the education prong of the “learned professional” exemption. 276 F.3d at 659. If six weeks of additional training, only four weeks of which is in the classroom, were sufficient to qualify as a specialized course of intellectual instruction, nearly every position with a formal training program would qualify.
The district court concluded that the requirement of eighteen months of experience in social work was another factor weighing in favor of a determination of specialized instruction. However, the regulation states clearly that the exemption does not apply to “occupations in which most employees have acquired their skill by experience.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(d). Owsley, upon which the district court relied, is not to the contrary, as the position at issue in that case included a requirement of specific academic courses as well as the apprenticeship requirement. 187 F.3d at 521. Indeed, Owsley distinguished Dybach on this exact point. Id. at 525.”
This decision gives an important roadmap to employees, employers and courts alike in determining the applicability of the learned professional exemption.