The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes minimum wage and overtime pay protections for all employees in the United States who are not exempt from its provisions by statutory exemption who work for covered employers or they are individually covered by the statute. FLSA contains many exemptions for minimum wage and overtime pay for a range of jobs and job duties (including lawyers). At stake in these exemptions is the right for employers to pay employees on a salary basis, free from overtime pay. As employees continue to work more hours both inside and outside the workplace, employers have an increasing incentive to expand the scope of these exemptions to avoid paying overtime pay. The Supreme Court handed employers a huge signal that it would be an ally to that goal in Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro decided this month.
The details on Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro
Encino Motorcars deals with whether service advisors are exempt under the FLSA exemptions related to car salespeople, mechanics and partsmen at dealerships. Service advisors are the people you talk to when you take a car to a dealership for repairs or maintenance. Although their jobs definitely involve sales on behalf of the mechanic shop, the question before the Supreme Court was whether the service advisors are mechanics or car salespeople within the meaning of the FLSA’s exemption for these roles.
A 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court held service advisors are exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay requirements under the FLSA’s exemption applying to mechanics and car salespeople. The majority opinion, written by
silent but deadly Justice Thomas, provides a fairly tortured reading of the statute and casually abandons precedent to reach its decision.
Statutory FLSA exemption for certain dealership employees
The exemption at issue is found at 29 U.S.C. §213(b)(10)(A) which reads:
any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles, trucks, or farm implements, if he is employed by a nonmanufacturing establishment primarily engaged in the business of selling such vehicles or implements to ultimate purchasers;
The majority acknowledges that service advisors are neither car salespeople nor mechanics. The majority also acknowledges that they are not partsmen (who manage the parts supply for the dealership) but suggests at least that maybe service advisors are pretty much partsmen. The majority rephrases the statutory exemption to say it applies to, “any salesman…primarily engaged in…servicing automobiles” for which the majority finds they do because they provide service to owners related to their cars.
The core of the majority’s analysis is that:
- The service advisor is a salesperson because he or she sells mechanic and maintenance services to car owners; and
- The service advisor provides car owners a service by selling repair services and acts as customer service for the mechanic department.
The majority calls this the “best reading” of the statute. Wut.
It’s clear that service advisors are salespeople. They are the sales and customer service face of the mechanic department. However, are they, “primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles”? The majority points out that both parties agree they neither sell cars nor repair them. However, the majority insists “servicing automobiles” means anything that services the car physically or customers in seemingly any manner possible–so selling repair services means servicing the automobile.
It’s hard to take the majority’s interpretation with a straight face, especially if you read the sad attempt to change the meaning of the word “or” as the majority does. But let’s pretend the majority is right that the statute really means a “salesman” meets the exemption if he or she is “primarily engaged in…servicing automobiles”. If “servicing automobiles” includes sales and customer service then the statutes doesn’t need to state “selling” as independent of “servicing”. The majority makes part of the statute superfluous in its interpretation which is a statutory interpretation no-no.
The dissent goes into greater detail why the meaning of “servicing” and the roles of the three jobs listed do not find a logical home for the majority’s interpretation. An important aspect raised by the dissent is the legislative history of the FLSA. In 1961 Congress added an exemption for all dealership employees but in 1966 amended the act to just three roles. Unlike many instances where legislative history is plucked over for helpful comments by individual members, here we have the entire body taking a specific act to restrict the exemption within dealerships. Rarely do we get such clear and singular language from Congress. The majority says we don’t need to look at the history when the language is clear. The majority might be right–but the language is clearly not what they say it is.
Narrow interpretation of the statutory exemption
The majority’s casual rewrite of the language of the statute is perhaps beaten by its casual rewrite of precedent. The majority rejects the intermediate appellate court’s argument that FLSA exemptions should be interpreted narrowly. It says, “gee, we just can’t find a textual message in the statute that we should interpret these exemptions narrowly”. The majority importantly opposes the normal cannon that remedial statutes like the FLSA are interpreted broadly in favor of its protected class to give effect to the remedial purpose.
The majority says the remedial purpose needs balance, so a “fair reading” is necessary, citing to precedent in the court’s regressive posture of the past thirty years undermining remedial statutes. The dissent plucks this argument apart by citing to cases in the years following passage of the FLSA explicitly rejecting the premise that the statute’s exemptions should be read expansively and that they are necessarily narrow.
What this will mean for FLSA overtime and minimum wage protections
Sadly, the Supreme Court’s turn away from narrowly reading FLSA exemptions to minimum wage and overtime pay likely means this is the first, rather than the only, exemption that will receive “fair reading” rather than a narrow interpretation. This case will likely serve as the lighthouse for future cases seeking to expand FLSA minimum wage and overtime pay exemptions, illuminating the way for employers to underpay hard-working employees. The direct impact of this case might be small but its long term effect will likely reach a broad group of workers.
This decision is completely unsurprising in every way. The regressive robes in this country, like Thomas and his allies on the bench, are part of the wave of conservative lawmakers, lobbyists and jurists rolling back worker rights and protective measures in many other areas of law. The willingness to so casually rewrite statutes and ignore precedent as the majority does here will only lower the bar for future cases pursuing expansion of overtime pay exemptions.