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Courts Support DOL Positions re: Tip-Credit Regs and Classification of Mortgage Loan Officers
July 31, 2012 8:10 am / Leave a comment
More so than any recent Department of Labor in memory, the DOL’s positions have come under attack by several major industries largely under the battle cry that they amount to unfair or “over” regulation. Although the Supreme Court recently handed the pharmaceutical industry a major victory in its industry-wide litigation regarding the outside sales exemption’s application to its so-called pharmaceutical reps or PSRs, the DOL and workers come out on the winning end in 2 district-level cases, both challenging recent DOL pronouncements of its policies. In the first, the DOL’s recent amendment to the rules governing when an employer may take the tip-credit with respect to tipped employees came under fire. In the second, the Mortgage Bankers Association challenged the DOL’s recent Administrative Interpretation 2010–1 in which the DOL took the position that Mortgage Loan Officers (MLOs) performing typical MLO duties were non-exempt.
National Restaurant Ass’n v. Solis
In the first case, the National Restaurant Association, Counsel of State Restaurant Associations, Inc., and National Federation of Independent Businesses sued the Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, in her official capacity as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor; Nancy Leppink, in her official capacity as Acting Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor; and the U.S. Department of Labor (“the Department” or “DOL”).
The rule at issue, 29 C.F.R. § 531.59(b), which went into effect on May 5, 2011, provided:
Pursuant to section 3(m), an employer is not eligible to take the tip credit unless it has informed its tipped employees in advance of the employer’s use of the tip credit of the provisions of section 3(m) of the Act, i.e.: The amount of the cash wage that is to be paid to the tipped employee by the employer; the additional amount by which the wages of the tipped employee are increased on account of the tip credit claimed by the employer, which amount may not exceed the value of the tips actually received by the employee; that all tips received by the tipped employee must be retained by the employee except for a valid tip pooling arrangement limited to employees who customarily and regularly receive tips; and that the tip credit shall not apply to any employee who has not been informed of these requirements in this section.
In its challenge to the regulation, the restaurant tradegroup-Plaintiffs alleged that the DOL violated the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. §§ 611, 702 (2006), when DOL promulgated a new regulation, 29 C.F.R. § 531.59(b) (2011), concerning an employer’s obligation to inform tipped employees of the “tip credit” requirements of the Federal Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201–219 (2006). The parties filed cross-motions seeking judgment in their respective favor. The court held that because the agency complied with the APA notice requirements when it conducted this rulemaking exercise, and the public was fully and specifically informed of the subject matter under consideration, the DOL was within its rulemaking powers when it promulgated the new tip-credit notice rules.
Click National Restaurant Ass’n v. Solis to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.
Mortgage Bankers Ass’n v. Solis
In the second case, the Mortgage Bankers Association, a trade group for mortgage bankers challenged the DOL’s issuance, in 2010, of Administrative Interpretation, the 2010 AI, which expressly withdrew a DOL’s 2006 Opinion Letter, regarding the exempt status of typical Mortgage Loan Officers (“MLOs”). Whereas, previously the DOL had taken the position that MLOs, performing typical duties of MLO positions met the requirements for application of the administrative exemption, the 2010 Administrative Interpretation took the opposite view- that typical MLOs are non-exempt.
Discussing the AI, the court explained:
The 2010 AI relies on a District of Minnesota decision, Casas v. Conseco Finance Corp., No. Civ.00–1512, 2002 WL 507059 (D.Minn. March 31, 2002) in addition to several other cases, as support for its position that mortgage loan officers are non-exempt employees. Id. at 105. In Casas, loan originators asserted they were entitled to overtime compensation from the defendants under the FLSA, requiring the court to decide whether the plaintiffs were exempt from FLSA overtime pay provisions. The court found that because “Conseco’s primary business purpose [was] to design, create and sell home lending products,” the mortgage loan officers’ primary duty was to sell those lending products on a day-to-day basis, not ” ‘the running of [the] business [itself]’ or determining its overall course or policies.” Casas, 2002 WL 507059, at *9 (citation omitted) (alterations in original). Relying on the ruling in Casas, the 2010 AI reasons that “because Conseco’s loan officers’ duties were ‘selling loans directly to individual customers, one loan at a time,’ ” the administrative exemption did not apply to them. A.R. at 105 (Administrator’s Interpretation No.2010–01) (internal citation omitted). The 2010 AI further notes that the 2004 amended regulations examined the difference between mortgage loan officers who spend the majority of their time selling mortgage products to consumers, like the Casas plaintiffs, as compared to those who “promot[e] the employer’s financial products generally, decid[e] on an advertising budget and techniques, run[ ] an office, hir[e] staff and set[ ] their pay, service [ ] existing customers …, and advis[e] customers.” Id. at 105 (citing 69 Fed.Reg. at 22145–46). The 2010 AI concluded that in order for mortgage loan officers to be properly classified as exempt employees, their primary duties must be administrative in nature. Id. at 105.
Relying on the facts that a significant portion of mortgage loan officers’ compensation is composed of commissions from sales, that their job performance is evaluated based on their sales volume, and that much of the non-sales work performed by the officers is completed in furtherance of their sales duties, the 2010 AI concluded “that a mortgage loan officer’s primary duty is making sales.” Id. at 106–07. And because their primary duty is making sales, the 2010 AI further concludes that “mortgage loan officers perform the production[, not the administrative,] work of their employers.” Id. at 107.
After concluding that the work of mortgage loan officers is not related to the general business operation of their employers, the 2010 AI considered another factor that could provide the basis for finding that mortgage loan officers are subject to the administrative exemption. Id. at 108. The AI states that “[t]he administrative exemption can also apply if the employee’s primary duty is directly related to the management or general business operations of the employer’s customers.” Id. In making this assessment, the 2010 AI notes that “it is necessary to focus on the identity of the customer.” Id. The 2010 AI finds that “work for an employer’s customers does not qualify for the administrative exemption where the customers are individuals seeking advice for their personal needs, such as people seeking mortgages for their homes.” Id. However, it recognizes that a mortgage loan officer “might qualify under the administrative exemption” if the customer that the officer is working with “is a business seeking advice about, for example, a mortgage to purchase land for a new manufacturing plant, to buy a building for office space, or to acquire a warehouse for storage of finished goods.” Id. Nevertheless, the 2010 AI concludes that the typical mortgage loan officers’ “primary duty is making sales for the employer [to homeowners], and because homeowners do not have management or general business operations, a typical mortgage loan officer’s primary duty is not related to the management or general business operations of the employer’s customers.” Id. at 109.
Finally, the 2010 AI took exception with the 2006 Opinion Letter’s apparent assumption “that the example provided in 29 C.F.R. § 541.203(b) creates an alternative standard for the administrative exemption for employees in the financial services industry.” Id. Rather, the 2010 AI states that 29 C.F.R. § 541.203(b) merely illustrates an example of an employee who might otherwise qualify for the exemption based on “the requirements set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 541.200.” Id. Thus, the 2010 AI clarifies that “the administrative exemption is only applicable to employees that meet the requirements set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 541.200.” Id. In providing this clarification, the 2010 AI states, “[t]he fact example at 29 C.F.R. § 541.203(b) is not an alternative test, and its guidance cannot result in it ‘swallowing’ the requirements of 29 C.F.R. § 541.200.” FN4
In summation, the DOL through the issuance of the 2010 AI explicitly withdrew the 2006 Opinion Letter “[b]ecause of its misleading assumption and selective and narrow analysis[.]” Id. Before taking this action, the DOL did not utilize the APA’s notice and comment process. Compl. ¶¶ 32–33.
The Mortgage Bankers Association relied on two different theories in seeking that the court strike down the AI at issue. First, relying on Paralyzed Veterans, 117 F.3d at 586, the plaintiff argues that once an agency issues an authoritative interpretation of its own regulation, it must utilize the notice and comment process if it desires to modify that interpretation. Second, the Mortgage Bankers Association argued that the 2010 AI does not comport with the 2004 regulations and is therefore “arbitrary, capricious, an abused of discretion, and otherwise not in accordance with law.”
With regard to the first argument, the rejected it, noting that ” seven courts of appeals have held that the notice and comment provisions found in section 553 of the APA do not apply to interpretative rules.” Further, the court held that the case did not fit within the limited recognized exceptions to that general rule. Similarly, the court held that the DOL’s interpretation of its own 2004 white collar regulations was not inconsistent and therefore not arbitrary and capricious. Thus, the court granted the DOL summary judgment, in part, and denied the Mortgage Bankers Association’s similar motion, and upheld the AI.
Click Mortgage Bankers Ass’n v. Solis to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.