Christensen v. Harris County: Compelled Use of FLSA Compensatory Time

In Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576 (2000), the Supreme Court held that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not prohibit public employers from compelling employees to use compensatory time.

Background

The Fair Labor Standards Act allows public employers (including states and their political subdivisions) to compensate employees for overtime work by granting them compensatory time instead of paying them a cash overtime wage. 29 U.S.C. § 207(o). Compensatory time is paid time off. To comply with this part of the FLSA, the public employer must provide the compensatory time at a rate not less than one and one-half hours for each hour of overtime worked. Id. Compensatory time can accumulate, like vacation time. Importantly, if employees do not use their accumulated compensatory time, under certain circumstances the FLSA requires the public employer to pay the employees cash compensation. 29 U.S.C. §§ 207(o)(3)-(4).

Facts

Employees in Harris County accumulated a great volume of unused compensatory time. This caused Harris County to worry that a budget crisis would result if it had to pay its employees for their accrued unused compensatory time. In an effort to avoid that situation, the county adopted a policy requiring its employees to schedule time off. The county’s reasoning was that requiring time off would reduce the amount of accrued compensatory time among its workers, thereby reducing the likelihood of a budget crisis from having to pay for unused compensatory time.

Ed Christensen was a Harris County deputy sheriff. He and a group of fellow deputy sheriffs sued the county, claiming the policy of requiring employees to use their compensatory time violated the FLSA. Christensen argued that the FLSA does not permit an employer to compel an employee to use compensatory time in the absence of an agreement allowing the employer to do so. The District Court ruled for Christensen and entered a declaratory judgment that the county’s policy violated the FLSA. The Fifth Circuit reversed. It held that the FLSA did not address the issue of compelling the use of compensatory time and therefore did not prohibit the county from implementing its policy.

The Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that neither the text of the FLSA nor its implementing regulations prohibits a public employer from compelling its employees to use their compensatory time.

First, the Court rejected Christensen’s argument that § 207(o)(5) of the FLSA implicitly prohibits compelled use of compensatory time in the absence of an agreement. That section provides that an employer must grant an employee’s request to use her compensatory time unless doing so would unduly disrupt the employer’s operations. 29 U.S.C. § 207(o)(5). Citing Raleigh & Gaston R. Co. v. Reid, 13 Wall. 269, 270 (1872) for the proposition that when a statute limits a thing to be done in a particular mode, it implicitly disallows any other mode, Christensen argued that because § 207(o)(5) allowed only an employee to require the use of compensatory time, that section implicitly prohibited an employer from requiring the use of compensatory time. Id. at 583-84. The Court disagreed with that conclusion. Instead, it found that the only “negative inference” to be drawn from § 207(o)(5) was that an employer may not deny a request for any reason other than that provided in § 207(o)(5). Id. Thus, the section did not prohibit employers from compelling the use of compensatory time.

The Court went on to explain that the purpose of § 207(o)(5) was to ensure that an employee receive “some timely benefit for overtime work.” Id. at 584. The FLSA’s nearby provisions reflect a similar concern. For example, § 207(o)(3)(A) provides that workers may not accrue more than 240 or 480 hours of compensatory time, depending upon the nature of the job. This provision “helps guarantee that employees only accrue amounts of compensatory time that they can reasonably use.” Christensen at 584. Similarly, the Court observed that § 207(o)(2)(B) conditions an employer’s ability to provide compensatory time (in lieu of paying cash overtime wages) upon the employee not accruing compensatory time in excess of the § 207(o)(3)(A) limits. Thus, these provisions, like § 207(o)(5), reflect a legislative concern that employees receive “some timely benefit in exchange for overtime work.” Christensen at 584.

The Court therefore concluded that the best reading of the FLSA is that it ensures liquidation of compensatory time. The law places restrictions on an employer’s ability to prohibit employees from using their compensatory time. But it says nothing about restricting an employer’s efforts to require employees to use the time. Id. at 585. Because the FLSA text is silent on this issue and because the county’s policy was compatible with § 207(o)(5), the Court held that Christensen could not, as § 216(b) of the FLSA requires, prove that the county violated the FLSA’s overtime provisions.

The Court further noted that two other features of the FLSA supported its reading that the FLSA did not prohibit employers from compelling the use of compensatory time. First, the FLSA allows employers to decrease the number of hours that employees work. Id. at 585 (citing Barrentine v. Arkansas—Best Freight System, Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 739 (1981) (“[T]he FLSA was designed … to ensure that each employee covered by the Act … would be protected from the evil of overwork …”). And second, the FLSA expressly allows employers to cash out accumulated compensatory time by paying the employee her regular hourly wage for each hour accrued. Id. at 585 (citing 29 U.S.C. § 207(o)(3)(B) & 29 CFR § 553.27(a)(1999). Thus, the FLSA allows an employer to require an employee to take time off work, and to use the money it would have paid in wages to cash out accrued compensatory time. Id. at 585. The Court concluded that Harris County’s policy of compelling the use of compensatory time “merely involves doing both of these steps at once.” Id. at 586.

Christensen also argued, unsuccessfully, that employers were prohibited from compelling the use of compensatory time pursuant a Department of Labor opinion letter. In that letter, the DOL concluded that an employer may compel the use of compensatory time only if the employee has agreed in advance to such a practice. Id. at 586-87. The Court observed that the opinion letter was not entitled to deference under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), because interpretations contained in opinion letters — similar to policy statements, agency manuals, and enforcement guidelines, all of which lack the force of law — do not warrant Chevron deference. While “persuasive” interpretations in opinion letters are “entitled to respect” under Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 140 (1944) the Court concluded DOL’s interpretation was not persuasive. Id. at 587.

While Chevron deference does apply to an agency interpretation contained in a regulation, the regulation at issue, 29 CFR § 553.23(a)(2), provided only that “[t]he agreement or understanding [between the employer and employee] may include other provisions governing the preservation, use, or cashing out of compensatory time so long as these provisions are consistent with [§ 207(o)].” Id.; Christensen at 587-88. The Court concluded that nothing in 29 CFR § 553.23(a)(2) “even arguably” requires that an employer’s compelled use policy must be included in an agreement. Id. 588. Thus, Chevron deference did not apply. Lastly, deference to an agency’s interpretation of its regulation is warranted under Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461 (1997), only when the regulation’s language is ambiguous. The Court held that the DOL’s regulation was not ambiguous, and therefore the DOL’s interpretation of that regulation was not entitled to Auer deference. Id. at 588.

Analysis

In sum, Christensen held that the FLSA does not prohibit public employers from compelling their employees to use their accrued compensatory time. While this issue is not specifically addressed in the text of the FLSA, the law does not explicitly prohibit this practice, and the conclusion that public employers may compel the use of compensatory time is consistent with other aspects of the FLSA that allow an employer to require employees to take time off from work and to use the money it would have paid in wages to cash out accrued compensatory time.

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