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9th Cir.: Group Home Housing “Severely Emotionally Disturbed” Children Not An “Institution Primarily Engaged in the Care of the Sick, the Aged, Mentally Ill”
Probert v. Family Centered Services of Alaska, Inc.
This case was before the Ninth Circuit on the defendant’s appeal of an order granting plaintiffs- house parents at their various group homes of emotionally disturbed children- summary judgment, holding that each of defendant’s homes were subject to FLSA coverage as an “institution primarily engaged in the care of the sick, the aged, mentally ill or defective who reside on the premises of such institution.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(r)(2)(A). The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that defendant’s homes were not primarily engaged in such care, although it was undisputed that they provided housing for same. In so doing, the Ninth Circuit ignored long-held jurisprudence requiring that courts liberally construe the FLSA’s coverage to serve the statute’s remedial goals.
Describing the relevant background facts, the Ninth Circuit explained:
“Plaintiffs Loretta and Robert Probert and Plaintiffs–Intervenors Debra and Eric Cloninger, Donna and John Grimes, Gene and Sandra Grissom, and Kenneth and Leona McDaniels are married couples who worked as “house parents” in FCSA’s Homes. Each Home housed up to five children. All the children were “severely emotionally disturbed” as defined by the Alaska law that qualifies the Homes for Medicaid funding, 7 Alaska Admin. Code § 43.471, and each of the children had at least one diagnosed mental disorder under Axis–I of the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The children attended local public schools and participated in other activities away from the Homes. The children participated in group therapy conducted by clinicians in the Homes, but received most of their medical and psychological treatment outside the Homes. Plaintiffs were not licensed medical or social service professionals.
Plaintiffs sued FCSA for overtime pay under the FLSA. After denying Plaintiffs’ first motion for partial summary judgment, the district court granted a similar motion for partial summary judgment in their favor, concluding that FCSA through its Homes, was operating “an institution primarily engaged in the care of the … mentally ill or defective who reside on the premises of such institution,’ “ 29 U.S.C. § 203(r)(2)(A), and was therefore an enterprise subject to the FLSA’s overtime provisions, id. § 207(a)(1). The district court observed that the FLSA does not define “institution.” As an analogy, the district court looked to a federal Medicaid regulation, not directly applicable to this situation, that defined “institution” as “an establishment that furnishes (in single or multiple facilities) food, shelter, and some treatment or services to four or more persons unrelated to the proprietor,” 42 C.F.R. § 435.1010, and concluded that the “Homes (either individually or as a group) could be considered an ‘institution.’ “ The court also relied on FCSA’s own website, which described the Homes as “provid[ing] quality residential care to male and female youth ages 6–18 that are experiencing mental health and behavioral issues and are at imminent risk of psychiatric placement outside of their community.”
Holding that the defendant did not fall within the definition of 203(r)(2)(A), the court reasoned:
“Plaintiffs argue that each of the FCSA Homes in which they worked is covered by the statute as “an institution primarily engaged in the care of … the mentally ill … who reside on the premises of such institution.” The FLSA is a remedial statute that is “to be liberally construed to apply to the furthest reaches consistent with Congressional direction.” Dent v. Cox Communications Las Vegas, Inc., 502 F.3d 1141, 1146 (9th Cir.2007) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also 29 C.F.R. § 779.101 (“An employer who claims an exemption under the Act has the burden of showing that it applies.”). Nonetheless, we conclude that the language of the statute does not cover the FCSA Homes, for two primary reasons.
The first reason is that the Homes were not “primarily engaged” in providing “care,” as that term is used in the statute. The statute refers to “care” in relation to groups with special needs, namely “the sick, the aged, the mentally ill or defective.” 29 U.S .C. § 203(r)(2)(A). As such, we understand “care” in this context to include something more like treatment. What the Homes primarily provided, as their name suggests, was a home or a residence. As noted above, the children attended school, engaged in activities, and received most of their medical and psychological treatment from medical and mental health professionals outside the Homes. Obviously, for children a home should be more than simply a place to live, and the children presumably benefitted from Plaintiffs’ “care” as house parents. But Plaintiffs were not medical or social service professionals and were not primarily focused on providing the type of “care” that those professionals provide.
The language of the statute clearly suggests a covered institution must provide more than the general care of a residence. In addition to requiring that the institution’s patrons “reside on the premises of [the] institution,” the institution must provide “care” of the type that is provided to “the sick, the aged, the mentally ill or defective.” If residing on the premises were enough by itself to define the given premises as covered by the statute, then the requirement that the institution be “primarily engaged” in the “care” of the individuals residing there would be superfluous. We are to avoid interpreting a statute in that manner. See TRW Inc. v. Andrews, 534 U.S. 19, 31 (2001) (“It is a cardinal principle of statutory construction that a statute ought, upon the whole, to be so construed that, if it can be prevented, no clause, sentence, or word shall be superfluous, void, or insignificant.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).
Second, the Homes do not appear to us to be “institutions” as that term is used in this statute. Around the time the 1966 amendment was drafted, the Oxford English Dictionary offered the following definition of “institution”:
An establishment, organization, or association, instituted for the promotion of some object, esp. one of public or general utility, religious, charitable, educational, etc., e.g. a church, school, college, hospital, asylum, reformatory, mission, or the like; as a literary and philosophical institution, a deaf and dumb institution, the Royal National Life-boat Institution, the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution …, the Railway Benevolent Institution, etc. 5 Oxford English Dictionary 354 (1933, reprinted 1961). The FCSA Homes do not fit well within that definition.
Nor do the Homes fit well with the neighboring parts of the relevant statute. They are not very much like
a hospital, …, a school for mentally or physically handicapped or gifted children, a preschool, elementary or secondary school, or an institution of higher education (regardless of whether or not such hospital, institution, or school is operated for profit or not for profit). 29 U.S.C. § 203(r)(2)(A).”
Similar to reasoning in Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., broadly construing the outsides sales exemption and refusing to adopt the guidance of the DOL outside of regulations promulgated by the Administrator of the DOL, the court further reasoned:
“Plaintiffs argue that we should interpret § 203(r)(2)(A) to include FCSA’s Homes because guidance from the Department of Labor indicates that a reference to “nursing homes” in that provision should be interpreted broadly. See Dep’t of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, Field Operations Handbook (FOH), ch. 12, § 12g02 (“[Institutions primarily engaged in the care of the aged] are not limited to nursing homes, … but include those institutions generally known as nursing homes, rest homes, convalescent homes, homes for the elderly and infirm, and the like.”). Plaintiffs argue that by the same reasoning, “institution primarily engaged in the care of the … mentally ill” should be interpreted broadly to include FCSA’s Homes. We disagree.
The FCSA Homes are very different from nursing homes and the related facilities listed in the handbook. The children who live at the FCSA Homes spend much of their time, perhaps a majority of their waking hours, elsewhere. They leave the Homes to attend school, participate in activities, and receive medical and psychological treatment. Residents of nursing homes are not necessarily confined completely to those facilities, but the expectation is that the vast majority of their time is spent there. Those facilities are also staffed with professionals, not simply house parents, and residents may be expected to receive substantially greater “care” in those facilities.”
Combined with its recent decision in Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., this decision is particularly disturbing. It appears the Ninth Circuit is quickly moving away from long held tenets of FLSA jurisprudence, the twin constructs that FLSA coverage is to be liberally construed, while exemptions/exceptions to coverage are to be narrowly construed against employers. In any case, it clear that here, that the Ninth Circuit construed FLSA coverage as narrowly as possible in holding that defendant was not a covered enterprise.
Click Probert v. Family Centered Services of Alaska, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.