Falk v. Brennan: Law of Employment and Control
In Falk v. Brennan, 414 U.S. 190 (1973), the Supreme Court held that an entity is an “employer” under the Fair Labor Standards Act when it exercises substantial control over the terms and conditions of the work of the employees at issue.
The Fair Labor Standards Act generally requires a covered “employer” to pay its covered nonexempt employees minimum wages for each hour worked and overtime wages for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours per workweek. 29 U.S.C. §§ 206(a) & 207(a). The FLSA defines “employer” as “includ[ing] any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 203(d). With some exceptions, the FLSA generally defines “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1). The FLSA defines “employ” as including “to suffer or permit to work.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(g).
The FLSA also provides that for an employer to be covered under the Act’s dollar-volume “enterprise” coverage provision, the employer must receive “annual gross volume of sales made or business done  not less than $500,000[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 203(s)(1)(A)(ii).
D&F operated a property management company in Virginia. It rendered management services for the owners of several apartment complexes. Under its contracts with the apartment owners, D&F agreed to perform, on behalf of each owner and under his “nominal” supervision, “virtually all management functions that are ordinarily required for the proper functioning of an apartment complex.” 414 U.S. at 192. Those functions included advertising the apartments; signing, renewing, and canceling leases; collecting rents; instituting and settling all legal proceedings for eviction, possession of the premises, and unpaid rent; making necessary repairs and alterations; negotiating contracts for essential utilities and other services; purchasing supplies; paying bills; preparing operating budgets for the property owners’ review and approval; submitting periodic reports to the owners; and “hiring and supervising all employees required for the operation and maintenance of the buildings and grounds.” Id. at n4.
As compensation, D&F received a fixed percentage of the gross rents collected from each project. D&F deposited the rents it collected in local bank accounts. From these accounts it paid all expenses incurred in operating and maintaining the buildings. After deducting its compensation, as well as other expenses, D&F periodically transmitted payments to the various apartment owners. If disbursements for any apartment complex exceeded the gross rental receipts, the owner was required to reimburse D&F. 414 U.S. at 192-93. D&F collected about $8 million dollars per year in rents for all the buildings it managed. Id. at n6. However, its gross commissions received on those rentals were less than $500,000 per year. Id. at n10.
The Secretary of Labor filed suit against D&F on behalf of the maintenance workers, alleging that D&F violated the minimum wage, overtime, and recordkeeping requirements of the FLSA with respect to those workers. Id. Significantly, these employees worked under the supervision of D&F and were paid from the rents received at the apartment complexes where they worked. Under the contracts between the apartment owners and D&F, the maintenance workers were considered to be “employees of the project owners.” Id.
A central question for the Court was whether the maintenance workers were also employees of D&F, such that D&F was responsible for complying with the FLSA’s minimum wage, overtime, and recordkeeping requirements with respect to those workers.
A secondary question was which figure should be considered in determining whether D&F met the $500,000 threshold for enterprise coverage: D&F’s gross rentals collected ($8M annually), or D&F’s gross commissions on those rentals (less than $500,000).
The Court’s Decision
The Court held that in addition to the apartment owners, D&F was also an FLSA “employer” of the maintenance workers — even though the owners and D&F had agreed that the workers were employees only of the owners. The Court reached this decision by interpreting the operative provisions of the FLSA as speaking to the extent of control a potential “employer” exercises over a worker.
First, the Court observed that Section 203(d) of the FLSA defines “employer” as ‘any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.’ 29 U.S.C. § 203(d). It further noted that Section 3(e) defines ‘employee’ to include ‘any individual employed by an employer.’ 29 U.S.C. s 203(e). Significantly, the Court interpreted these two provisions as providing an “expansive” definition of “employer” — meaning that whether an entity was an FLSA employer, with the attendant minimum wage, overtime, and recordkeeping responsibilities, could not be controlled by an agreement between entities that only one of them would be the “employer.”
The Court further indicated that the relevant inquiry, in answering the “employer” question, was whether the potential employer had “substantial control of the terms and conditions of the work” the employees performed. Id. at 195. D&F, for example, appears to have had supervisory powers with respect to the maintenance workers at the buildings it managed. See id. at 193 (“These employees work under the supervision of D&F”). The Court therefore determined that “in view of the expansiveness of [the FLSA’s] definition of ‘employer’ and the extent of D&F’s managerial responsibilities at each of the buildings, which gave it substantial control of the terms and conditions of the work of these employees,” D&F was pursuant to the FLSA an ‘employer’ of the maintenance workers Id.
With respect to the dollar-volume limitation question, the Court observed that D&F “sells” only professional management services, and therefore the gross rentals it collected as part of rendering those services to building owners did not represent sales attributable to D&F. Id. at 197-201. Based on this reasoning, the Court concluded D&F’s commissions were the relevant measure of its gross sales made or business done for purposes of the dollar-volume limitation in Section 203(s)(1). Thus, even though D&F was an “employer” under the the terms of the FLSA, and an “enterprise” under Section 203(r), the FLSA did not apply to D&F because its gross sales were below the Section 203(s)(1) dollar-volume threshold. Id. at 201.
In sum, Falk v. Brennan held that an entity is an “employer” under the FLSA when it exercises substantial control over the terms and conditions of the work of employees at issue. This decision later became relevant to the Department of Labor’s development of regulations guiding the analysis of FLSA “joint employment” situations. In those situations, where more than one entity benefits from the work of employees, the extent to which each entity exercises control over the terms and conditions of the workers’ employment is an important consideration in determining the entities’ respective or joint responsibilities under the FLSA. For the DOL’s analysis of its most recent changes to the rule (29 C.F.R. § 791) regarding joint employment, effective March 2020, go here.
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