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E.D.Pa.: Hourly-Paid Physician Assistant (PA) Not Professional Exempt; Not A Practitioner “Licensed and Practicing In The Field Of Medical Science”
Cuttic v. Crozer-Chester Medical Center
This case was before the court on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment regarding whether plaintiff was exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions under the professional exemption. Because it was undisputed that Plaintiff was paid on an hourly rather than salary basis, the sole issue before the court was whether plaintiff, a physician assistant (PA), qualified as a “professional” within the meaning of § 541.304, the regulation that exempts certain “other practitioners licenced and practicing in the field of medical science” from the typical salary requirements for the professional exemption. Holding that PA’s do not fall within this definition, the court granted plaintiff’s motion and denied defendant’s motion.
The court reasoned:
“The issue in dispute is whether PAs are intended to be included within § 541.304 and, thus, exempt from the salary requirement in § 541.300(a)(1). In particular, the parties contest whether the language “other practitioners licenced and practicing in the field of medical science” includes PAs. See 29 C.F.R. § 541.304(b).
Defendant argues that PAs are explicitly included among those who qualify for the salary-basis exemption enunciated in § 541.304 because the regulation makes an exception to the salary-basis requirement for employees holding valid licenses or certifications permitting the practice of medicine and actually engaging in the practice thereof. 29 C.F.R. § 541.304(d). Defendant states that because Plaintiff admitted he possesses a valid licence to practice as a PA in Pennsylvania and that he “practice[s] medicine under the direct supervision of [his] attending physicians,” Plaintiff is a “practitioner licensed and practicing in a field of medical science” and qualifies under the salary-basis exemption. (Def.’s Mot. for Summ. J. at 9-12.)
Plaintiff, on the other hand, argues that the salary-basis exemption is narrow in scope and does not include PAs. To support this argument, Plaintiff compares the examples given in § 541.600(e) and § 541.304(b). Section 541.600(e) states that “[i]n the case of medical occupations, the exception from the salary or fee requirement does not apply to pharmacists, nurses, therapists, technologists, sanitarians, dieticians, social workers, psychologists, psychometrists, or other professions which service the medical profession.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.600(e) (emphasis added). Section 541.304(b) states that “the exemption applies to physicians and other practitioners…. The term ‘physicians’ includes doctors including general practitioners and specialists, osteopathic physicians …, podiatrists, dentists …, and optometrists ….” 29 C.F.R. § 541.304(b).
Plaintiff argues that a PA is more akin to one of the named professions which “service the medical profession” as opposed to a doctor, osteopathic physician, podiatrist, dentist, or optometrist. Plaintiff points out that any work he does as a PA must be performed under the direct supervision of a physician, and his main function “is to serve and provide support to the medical profession .” (Pl.’s Mot. for Summ. J. at 8.)
B. Examination of § 541.304
In interpreting the language and meaning of § 541.304, the Court must first determine whether the terms used in § 541.304 are ambiguous as to PAs. Defendant argues that PAs unambiguously practice medicine or a branch of medicine within the meaning of § 541.304, and Plaintiff maintains that the regulation does not speak to this issue. “A regulation is ambiguous when it is not free from doubt … and where no particular interpretation of the regulation is compelled by the regulation’s plain language or by other indications of the [agency’s] intent at the time of promulgation of the regulation.” Sec’y of Labor v. Beverly Healthcare-Hillview, 541 F.3d 193, 198 (3d Cir.2008) (internal marks omitted) (holding the term “cost” in Bloodborne Pathogens Standard regulation was ambiguous based on preamble language and fact that neither party “pointed to any indication contemporaneous with promulgation unequivocally stating the agency’s intent to interpret the provision in a particular way”).
Here, the regulations do not define the terms used in § 541.304. In particular, the term “other practitioners licensed and practicing in the field of medical science” is broad and undefined. See Belt v. Emcare, Inc., 444 F.3d 403, 409-12 (5th Cir.2006) (finding § 541.304‘s language is ambiguous and resorting to DOL for interpretative guidance); Clark v. United Emergency Animal Clinic, Inc., 390 F.3d 1124, 1127 (9th Cir.2004) (considering the applicability of § 541.304 to veterinarians); Parker v. Halpern-Ruder, M.D., No. 07-401S, 2008 WL 4365429, at *1 (D.R.I. Sept.16, 2008) (considering the applicability of § 541.304 to registered nurse practitioners and holding nurse practitioners do not fall within § 541.304). Consequently, the Court must construe the language of § 541.304 by giving controlling weight to the agency’s interpretations unless they are “arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute.” Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Res. Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-44, 104 S.Ct. 2778, 81 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984). An agency’s interpretation is controlling “unless plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.” Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461, 117 S.Ct. 905, 137 L.Ed.2d 79 (1997) (internal marks omitted).
There is limited law on the question of whether PAs are exempt from the overtime requirements of the FLSA pursuant to § 541.304. The Fifth Circuit, the only circuit to consider the matter, gave deference to the DOL’s informal interpretative statements because that court held that there was limited law on the matter. Belt, 444 F.3d at 405 (using DOL interpretative statements to determine that PAs are not exempt from the salary-basis test); see also Parker, No. 07-401S, 2008 WL 4365429, at *4 (denying Defendant’s motion to dismiss because Defendant did not establish that nurse practitioners are subject to salary-basis exemption in § 541.304). This Court will do the same.
The DOL has consistently interpreted the regulations set forth in § 541 to require a PA to satisfy both the duties test and the salary-basis test, as set forth in § 541.300(a)(1)-(2), in order to qualify for an exemption from the FLSA’s overtime requirements. The DOL has refused to extend § 541.304‘s exception to the salary-basis requirement beyond actual physicians and has consistently taken the position that the salary-basis exception does not apply to PAs. The DOL issued an interpretative regulation in 1949, which was revised in 1973, regarding the meaning of § 541.304(a)‘s phrase “or any of its branches”. See Belt, 444 F.3d at 413 (examining DOL’s interpretative regulations to interpret 29 C.F.R. § 541.3(e) which is a predecessor to 29 C.F.R. § 541.304). This interpretative regulation stated:
Exception for physicians, lawyers, and teachers.
(a) … The exception applies only to the traditional professions of law, medicine, and teaching and not to employees in related professions which merely serve these professions.
(b) In the case of medicine:
(1) … The term physicians means medical doctors including general practitioners and specialists, and osteopathic physicians…. Other practitioners in the field of medical science and healing may include podiatrists …, dentists …, optometrists….
(3) In the case of medical occupations, the exception from the salary or fee requirement does not apply to pharmacists, nurses, therapists, technologists, sanitarians, dieticians, social workers, psychologists, psychometrists, or other professions which service the medical profession.
Id. (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 541.314(a), (b)(1)-(3) (1973)) (emphasis added). This language indicates that the DOL intended for the salary-basis exemption, set forth in § 541.304, to only apply to the “traditional professions of law, medicine, and teaching….” Defendant does not assert any arguments as to why PA’s should be considered members of the “traditional professions of law, medicine, and teaching.” The PA occupation did not develop until 1960; as such, it could not have been within the traditional practice of medicine when the exception was first enacted in 1940.
The 2004 amendments to the regulations continue to use a salary-basis test to determine whether an employee qualifies for the “bona fide professional” exemption pursuant to § 541.300. Additionally, the 2004 amendments specifically reference PA’s. Section 541.301(e)(4) states that PAs who meet certain educational and certification requirements “generally meet the duties requirements for the learned professional exemption.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(e)(4). The learned professional exemption that is referenced is found in § 541.300, and this exemption requires an employee to meet the duties and salary requirements. Other occupations explicitly recognized in § 541.301 include registered or certified medical technologists and nurses. See § 541.301(e) (1)-(2). These recognized professions are explicitly excluded from § 541.304‘s salary-basis exemption in § 541.600(e). Further support for the Plaintiff’s position is found directly in the DOL’s statements. In Belt, the DOL, as amicus curiae, “unambiguously adopt[ed] the position that [nurse practitioners] and PA’s do not qualify for the professional exemption.” 444 F.3d at 415; see also Auer, 519 U.S. at 462 (finding that Secretary’s amicus brief sufficed to show how the DOL interpreted its own ambiguous regulation).
Under these circumstances, the Court will give deference to the DOL’s position which is consistent with the 1973 interpretative regulations and 2004 amendments. In deferring to the DOL’s interpretive statements, the Court holds that PAs are not included in the salary-basis exemption found in § 541.304.”
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