Encino Motorcars v. Navarro (SCt. Case No. 16-1362) (Encino II) held that service advisors at car dealerships are exempt from the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requiring employers to pay overtime to employees who work more than forty hours in a week. Enacted in 1938, the FLSA is the United States labor law that created the employee right to minimum wage, and overtime pay (generally, one and a half times the employee’s regular hourly rate) for employees who work over forty hours a week. The FLSA, however, contains numerous exemptions — categories of employees who are not entitled to receive overtime pay under the FLSA based on their job duties. These employees are referred to as “exempt” from the right to receive overtime pay.
One such provision, codified at 29 U.S.C. §213(b)(10)(A), provides an exemption to the overtime-pay requirement for “any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles, trucks, or farm implements.” The plaintiff employee Navarro in Encino Motorcars worked for a car dealership as a service advisor. Navarro sued the dealership on behalf of himself and other service advisors, arguing that the dealership violated the FLSA by failing to pay them overtime wages. The primary question for the Supreme Court was whether the FLSA entitled service advisors to overtime pay, or whether the job of service advisor fell into the exemption for “salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles[.]”
At the trial court level, the district court had dismissed the suit on the grounds that service advisors were exempt and therefore were not entitled to overtime pay. The employees appealed that decision, and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court, finding that the exemption for “salesman … primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles” did not apply to service advisors at car dealerships. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and held that the service advisors were exempt and therefore not entitled to overtime pay. Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion. Justice Ginsberg wrote the dissent.
The Court first determined that a service advisor is a “salesman” for the purposes of the exemption at issue, because the ordinary meaning of “salesman” is someone who sells goods or services, and service advisors “sell [customers] services for their vehicles[.]” Encino II at 6 (cite to earlier decision omitted).
Next, the Court held that service advisors are also “primarily engaged in . . . servicing automobiles.” Thomas’ reasoning here was that “servicing” can mean either “the action of maintaining or repairing a motor vehicle” or “[t]he action of providing a service,” and service advisors satisfy both definitions because they are integral to the servicing process. Encino II at 6-7. Service advisors meet customers and listen to their concerns about their cars; suggest repair and maintenance services; sell new or replacement parts; record service orders; follow up with customers as the services are performed; and explain the repair and maintenance work being performed. Encino II at 6-7 (quotes omitted). Therefore, service advisors are primarily engaged in servicing automobiles.
In reaching this conclusion, Thomas rejected the Ninth Circuit’s approach to interpreting the word “or” in the language of the exemption (“any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles”). The Ninth Circuit had applied the distributive method — matching “salesman” with “selling” and “partsman [and] mechanic” with “servicing”— and therefore determined that the exemption does not apply to “salesm[e]n . . . primarily engaged in . . . servicing automobiles.” The Supreme Court disagreed with that approach, observing that the word “or,” is “almost always disjunctive” — meaning, in this context of this language, that “salesman” could be matched with “servicing.” Encino II at 7-9 (citing United States v. Woods, 571 U. S. 31, 45.) The Court also pointed out that the distributive use of “or” worked best when one-to-one matching was possible and did not make as much sense when trying to pair three terms (“salesman, partsman, or mechanic”) with two terms (“selling” or “servicing”). Therefore, the Court applied the disjunctive meaning of “or.” By using “or” to join “selling” and “servicing”, Thomas determined that the exemption covers a salesman primarily engaged in either selling or servicing. This included service advisors, which the Court had concluded were salesmen primarily engaged in servicing automobiles. Encino II at 7-9.
Thomas also discussed the Ninth Circuit’s application of the long-standing principle in FLSA jurisprudence that exemptions should be narrowly construed. Thomas rejected that approach, reasoning that because the FLSA “gives no textual indication that its exemptions should be construed narrowly, there is no reason to give them anything other than a fair (rather than a ‘narrow’) interpretation.” Encino II at 9 (citing and quoting Scalia, Reading Law, at 363.)
In sum, this case determined that service advisors at auto dealerships are exempt from the overtime-pay requirement, and departed from the Court’s long-standing principle that FLSA exemptions should be construed narrowly.
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Epic Systems Corp v. Lewis (SCt. Case No. 16-285) highlights the tension between a pair of federal laws, The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), concerning whether an employment contract can legally bar employees from engaging in collective action to enforce their rights in court. The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) was enacted in 1925 to allow parties to contractually agree to resolve disputes through arbitration, rather than through the judicial system. The following decade Congress enacted The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (“NLRA”), which protects the rights of employees to, among other things, engage in collective action to protect their legal rights. Employees protected under the NLRA are able to join together and take collective action to counter unfair employment practices and improve their working conditions and wages.
In Epic Systems, the employer distributed via email a new policy requiring employees to sign an arbitration agreement. The agreement, in short, stated that employees bringing claims for alleged violations of wage-and-hour or other laws could only do so through individual arbitration. This agreement further included a provision designed to waive the employees’ “rights to participate in any class, collective, or representative proceeding.” The agreement was to be recognized and signed by its employees, including Lewis, a tech writer for the company. Lewis did acknowledge and sign the agreement.
The following year, in February of 2015, Lewis filed a suit against Epic Systems. The suit was filed as a purported collective action, involving other tech writers employed at Epic Systems. The collective action alleged Epic Systems failed to follow The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, in addition to a Wisconsin law related to employees’ rights to receive overtime pay. The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. Epic Systems moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that the arbitration agreement signed by Lewis prevented him from bringing or participating in collective actions, and required him to address any claims through individual arbitration. The District Court denied Epic Systems’ motion, finding Lewis’ action was protected under section 7 of the NLRA, and stating that the 2014 arbitration agreement and collective action waiver violated those terms.
Epic Systems appealed the District Court’s decision to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, arguing the District Court erred by finding that the FAA did not control and that the collective action waiver was not valid. The Seventh Circuit agreed with the District Court, however, finding that Epic Systems’ collective action waiver violated the terms of the NLRA. Epic Systems petitioned to the Supreme Court of the United States for a writ of certiorari, following a split of authority among the circuit courts of appeal relating to the tension between respective provisions of the NLRA and FAA. In January 2017, the Supreme Court consolidated Epic Systems with two other similar cases and agreed to hear the oral arguments of all three cases.
On May 21, 2018, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision ruling that individual arbitration agreements and collective action waivers are enforceable under the FAA, and that neither the NLRA or the FAA’s savings clause requires a different conclusion.
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