• Federal Court Rejects Application of Professional Exemption to Caseworkers
  • April 27, 2010 | Author: Noel P. Tripp
  • Law Firm: Jackson Lewis LLP - Melville Office
  • In yet another wage-and-hour decision with the potential to disrupt longstanding practices within an industry, a federal court in Florida has ruled that the FLSA’s “learned professional” exemption does not apply to a group of caseworkers providing child protection services for an state-authorized agency. Talbott, et al v. Lakeview Center, 06-cv-378 (N.D. Fla. February 2, 2010). The learned professional exemption requires that:

    • An employee’s primary duty must be the performance of work requiring advanced knowledge, defined as work which is predominantly intellectual in character and which includes work requiring the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment;
    • The advanced knowledge must be in a field of science or learning; and
    • The advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.

    In Talbott, Plaintiffs were caseworkers in two different job titles who provided counseling services to families under the supervision of their “casework counselor supervisor.” The Plaintiffs alleged that while many of them held a degree related to social work, their actual job did not require them to use that degree or exercise any discretion or judgment. Specifically, Plaintiffs asserted that Defendant’s “six- to eight-week ... training course provided them with the knowledge necessary to perform their jobs” and accordingly the job requirements were “insufficient to meet the learned professional exemption’s requirement of advanced knowledge.” The Court agreed. It observed that while the Defendant had put forth evidence that it required a combination of education and experience to obtain the job, it was clear to the Court that “[t]he type of knowledge necessary to perform the duties ... is gained by the employee in Lakeview’s training course.” The Court even found the violation to be willful and based on such finding extended the liability period to 3 years and awarded 100% liquidated damages.

    Further (and economically devastating to the Defendant), the court concluded based on evidence in the record (including listing fixed hours in the job posting for the position and invoking an informal “flex time” concept with the employees to address circumstances where their hours would exceed 40) that the “contract” of employment with the Plaintiffs had been for 40 hours of work per week, and therefore Plaintiffs were entitled to overtime based on time and half their regular rate of pay based on a 40 hour workweek (i.e, 1.5 times (their weekly salary divided 40) times hours worked in excess of 40 in the week). The Court specifically rejected any overtime calculation based on dividing the weekly salary by total hours worked and paying ½ time for overtime hours.

    What are the lessons? First, all employers must ensure that individuals classified as exempt learned professionals have at the least Bachelors Degree in a specific discipline and that the educational coursework to achieve the degree is essential to the performance of job duties. Second, employers should be very wary of advising any employee classified as exempt that their salary covers a set number of hours per week. Rather, employers should advise employees that the salary covers all hours worked.