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E.D.Pa.: For Application of Computer Exemption, Hourly Rate Must Be Measured Hour-by-Hour, Not On A Weekly Average Basis
Jones v. Judge Technical Services, Inc.
This case was before the court on a variety of motions from all parties. As discussed here, the court was tasked with deciding how the hourly rate must be calculated for purposes of applying the computer exemption, where all parties agreed that the plaintiff was paid on an hourly not salary basis. Plaintiff’s primary contention was that the defendant misclassified him and other employees as exempt from the FLSA’a overtime provisions under 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(17) (the FLSA’s computer-employee exemption), and subsequently failed to pay them overtime compensation.
Describing the relevant factual background, the court explained:
Defendant maintains a variety of pay structures for its employees. The pay structures at issue are the “Professional Day” and “Professional Week” agreements, which apply only to employees who Defendant has classified as exempt under the FLSA’s computer-employee exemption. Under the “Professional Day” agreement, an employee “will not be paid for more than eight hours in a day, unless that employee works more than ten hours in a day. If the employee works more than ten hours in a day and the manager approves, the employee will be entitled to be paid an additional fee for services provided after the 11th hour.” Under the “Professional Week” plan, employees receive a set hourly rate for every hour worked up to forty hours per week, and receive no additional compensation for hours worked in excess of forty hours per week. (Id. at ¶¶ 10, 15–18) (alterations omitted). Defendant considers employees designated under either structure as exempt under § 213(a)(17).
Plaintiff Morgan Jones initially contacted Defendant through one of its recruiters, Robert Helsel. In July 2011, Defendant successfully placed Plaintiff in a position as Senior Project Manager with Citigroup. When Plaintiff started at Citigroup, he was classified by Defendant as exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements under 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(17) and was subject to Defendant’s “Professional Day” pay plan. (Id. at ¶¶ 20, 27, 30–31, 51.)
Like Defendant’s other employees, Plaintiff was required to enter his daily hours into Defendant’s “EaZyTyme system,” an online-based time reporting system maintained and controlled by Defendant. In addition to reporting his time in EaZyTyme, Plaintiff also reported his work hours directly to Citigroup for purposes of effectuating payment from Citigroup to Defendant for Plaintiff’s work. During his placement with Citigroup, Plaintiff routinely worked over forty hours per week and occasionally over fifty hours per week. (Id. at ¶¶ 39–40, 46, 52.) Beginning on November 14, 2011, Plaintiff was taken out of the Professional Day structure and paid on an hourly basis. (Id. at ¶¶ 13–14, 56–57.)
After quoting the language in the relevant computer exemption, 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(17), the court broke the criteria for same down to:
(1) that the employee perform certain “primary duties”; and (2) that he be compensated at a rate of at least $27.63 an hour.
Framing the issue presented by the respective parties, the court stated:
Defendant asserts that it is entitled to judgment on the second criteria, reasoning that the requirement is met so long as an employee is paid an average hourly wage of $27.63 or more in a given workweek (hereinafter, “the workweek method”). Defendant explains that because it is undisputed that, in any given week, Plaintiff was always paid an average hourly wage well above $27.63, there is no dispute that the exemption’s $27.63 requirement is met. (Def.’s Br. in Support of Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 7–14.)
Plaintiff counters that the statute sets forth an hour-by-hour, rather than an averaging, approach, and thus computer employees must be paid at least $27.63 for each hour worked (hereinafter, “the hour-by-hour method”). Because Plaintiff was paid $0.00 for hours nine and ten while he was paid under the “Professional Day” structure, he argues that the exemption’s second requirement was not met and he was thus misclassified as exempt. (Pl.’s Br. in Opp’n to Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 9–12.)
Noting that the issue presented was one of first impression and susceptible to different interpretations, the court held:
With the above precepts in mind, and after examination of the statutory language, the Department of Labor regulations and the canons of construction applicable to FLSA exemptions, we conclude that an employee paid on an hourly basis may only be classified as exempt under 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(17) if that employee is compensated at least $27.63 for each and every hour he or she works
The court reasoned that the language in the exemption was not intended to merely mimic that of the minimum wage portions of the FLSA, but rather should be construed narrowly, as any other exemption should be:
We initially find that the statutory language is susceptible to different interpretations. Neither the FLSA nor the implementing regulations set forth a formula for determining whether an employee has received “not less than $27.63 an hour,” and both parties have presented plausible interpretations of the provision. That said, it appears that a more exact reading of the language is that it requires an employer to pay the requisite sum for each and every hour worked. Indeed, the language of the provision in question specifically refers to compensation on an “hourly basis,” and is silent regarding the use of a weekly or averaging basis.
Defendant argues we should treat the $27.63 hourly rate as a minimum wage provision, and points to Dove v. Coupe, 759 F.2d 167, 171–72 (D.C.Cir.1985), a case which allowed a minimum wage requirement to be met by looking at the average of hours worked. While we have carefully considered Dove, we decline to follow its holding, in part because that case focused on minimum wage requirements while the issue before us is Defendant’s exempting Plaintiff from overtime compensation.
Defendant also posits that applying the workweek standard effectuates congressional intent. Defendant asserts that the averaging approach ensures that the purpose of the minimum wage—the protection of “certain groups of the population from sub-standard wages … due to … unequal bargaining power,” Dove, 759 F.2d at 171 (quoting Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 706, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945) (internal quotation marks omitted))—is met. Defendant further argues that the Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division has adopted the workweek as the period for determining whether an employee has received wages at a rate not less than the statutory minimum, and that this interpretation of the statute is entitled to deference. (Def.’s Br. in Support of Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 8–10.) Again, Defendant’s arguments focus on minimum wage theories not at issue here.
We agree with Plaintiff’s view that, based on the allegations raised in this case, the $27.63 requirement is not a minimum wage test, but rather a compensation test for applicability of the exemption pertaining to overtime. Plaintiff correctly stresses that Defendant’s argument fails to recognize that his claims are for unpaid overtime under § 207, not for unpaid minimum wages under § 206, and that there is a significant distinction between those provisions. Section 206 is directed at providing a minimum standard of living while § 207 is concerned with deterring long hours by making those hours more expensive for the employer. In light of these two separate provisions, we conclude that Defendant’s reliance on minimum wage arguments and case law is misplaced. The fact that § 213(a) refers to both §§ 206 and 207 does not mean, as Defendant urges, that the overtime provisions of § 207 can be conflated with minimum wage principles.
The parties also dispute which construction of § 213(a)(17) best effectuates the purpose of the FLSA. Because neither legislative history nor the regulations clarify whether the computer-employee exemption’s $27.63 requirement is to be calculated on a weekly or hourly basis, our determination must necessarily rest on a construction that “best accords with the overall purposes of the statute.” United States v. Introcaso, 506 F.3d 260, 267 (3d Cir.2007) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Plaintiff argues that the FLSA is remedial in nature, and thus should be construed liberally in favor of employees. He also notes that, in light of this remedial purpose, courts have consistently found that FLSA exemptions must be narrowly construed, that is, against the employer. (Pls.’ Br. in Opp’n to Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 9–10.) Defendant counters that, because the FLSA contains criminal penalties for violations of the minimum wage and overtime requirements, the rule of lenity dictates that a less harsh meaning should be applied in interpreting the computer-employee exemption. (Def.’s Br. in Support of Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 10–11.)
Courts are to apply the rule of lenity only if, “after considering text, structure, history, and purpose, there remains a ‘grievous ambiguity or uncertainty in the statute.’ ” Barber v. Thomas, 560 U.S. 474, 130 S.Ct. 2499, 2508–09, 177 L.Ed.2d 1 (2010) (quoting Muscarello v. United States, 524 U.S. 125, 139, 118 S.Ct. 1911, 141 L.Ed.2d 111 (1998)). In other words, the rule of lenity’s application is limited to instances in which a court “can make no more than a guess as to what Congress intended.” United States v. Wells, 519 U.S. 482, 499, 117 S.Ct. 921, 137 L.Ed.2d 107 (1997) (quoting Reno v. Koray, 515 U.S. 50, 65, 115 S.Ct. 2021, 132 L.Ed.2d 46 (1995) (internal quotation marks omitted)). That is not the case here.
While the relevant unit for determining compliance with the computer-employee exemption’s compensation requirement is less than clear, and appears to be a matter of first impression, the appropriate construction of FLSA exemptions is not. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held that the FLSA must be construed liberally in favor of employees, and that statutory exemptions should thus be construed narrowly. Lawrence v. City of Phila., 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d Cir.2008) (citing Tony & Susan Alamo Found. v. Sec’y of Labor, 471 U.S. 290, 296, 105 S.Ct. 1953, 85 L.Ed.2d 278 (1985), Barrentine v. Arkansas–Best Freight Sys., Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 739, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 67 L.Ed.2d 641 (1981) and Arnold v. Ben Kanowsky, Inc., 361 U.S. 388, 392, 80 S.Ct. 453, 4 L.Ed.2d 393 (1960)). Therefore, an employer seeking to apply an exemption to the FLSA must prove that the employee and/or employer comes ‘plainly and unmistakably’ within the exemption’s terms and spirit. Id. (quoting Arnold, 361 U.S. at 392) (emphasis omitted).
With the above canon of construction in mind, we conclude that the hour-by-hour approach advocated by Plaintiff best accords with the remedial nature of the FLSA. Exemptions are to be construed narrowly and their application must be established by the employer. Defendant has not persuaded us that the computer-employee exemption “plainly and unmistakably” applies. Nor has Defendant demonstrated that its proposed interpretation is required by the plain language of the provision, that the legislative history or regulations support its interpretation, or that the interpretation best accords with the purpose of the FLSA. Therefore, we find that, as a matter of law, the computer-employee exemption is applicable only where, assuming the primary duties test is met, an employee paid on an hourly basis receives compensation at a rate of $27.63 for each and every hour worked.
Applying this standard, we conclude that Plaintiff was misclassified as exempt under § 213(a)(17). Accordingly, we will deny Defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment with respect to this claim.
Click Jones v. Judge Technical Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.