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10th Cir.: Jury Instruction That Employer Bore Burden of Proving Exemption “Plainly and Unmistakably” Was in Error
Lederman v. Frontier Fire Protection, Inc.
Following a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff-employee in a misclassification case, the defendant appealed. At issue was one jury instruction that the plaintiff had requested and which the trial court had given, instructing the jurors that:
An employer seeking an exemption from the overtime requirements of the FLSA bears the burden of proving that the particular employee fits plainly and unmistakably within the terms of the claimed exemption.
While the court acknowledged that the Tenth Circuit had regularly used the “plainly and unmistakably” language for decades, it ultimately held that such language is only applicable to statutory construction in the context of issues of law (i.e. decisions made by the court such as those on summary judgment motions) and not apply to issues of fact (i.e. decisions made by the jury or fact-finder). The court further clarified that the burden of proof on a defendant-employer raising an exemption defense under the FLSA is simply a preponderance of the evidence. Moreover, because the court held that the instruction had prejudiced the defendant, the court reversed the judgment in favor of the plaintiff and remanded the case back to the trial court for a new trial.
After sifting through three decades worth of Tenth Circuit jurisprudence, the court explained:
[a]ll of our other cases employing this phrase have done so in addressing legal rather than factual issues… In sum then, just as some courts have mistakenly viewed “clear and affirmative evidence” as a heightened evidentiary standard, the same is true with the phrase “plainly and unmistakably.” When our prior cases employing this phrase are read as a whole, they do not establish a heightened evidentiary requirement on employers seeking to prove an FLSA exemption. Instead, the ordinary burden of proof—preponderance of the evidence—controls the jury’s evaluation of whether the facts establish an exemption to the FLSA.
Click Lederman v. Frontier Fire Protection, Inc. to read the entire Decision.