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California Supreme Court Punts On Clarifying Exemption Rules

The California Supreme Court has passed on an opportunity to provide California employers with clear guidelines for applying the exemptions from the state’s wage and hour rules. In Harris v. Superior Court, Case No. S156555 (Dec. 29, 2011), the Court chastised the Court of Appeal for applying an “administrative/production worker dichotomy” as a dispositive test for the administrative exemption, but declined to provide any usable tests of its own.

The case was a class action on behalf of claims adjusters for Liberty Mutual and Golden Eagle. Guided by two decisions in another claims adjuster class action against Farmers Insurance (Bell II and Bell III), the Court of Appeal ordered the employers’ exemption defense stricken. For the Court of Appeal, the dispositive question was whether the claims adjusters were administrative workers or production workers. Although there was evidence that the adjusters’ work in Harris was not routine and unimportant, they fell on the production side because their work — investigating claims, determining coverage and setting reserves — was not carried on at the level of policy or general operations.

The Supreme Court ruled that the lower court should have paid closer attention to changes in wage and hour law after the Bell litigation had gotten under way. In 1999, the California Legislature amended the Labor Code to reinstitute daily overtime, and directed the Industrial Welfare Commission to review the duties that met the test of the administrative, executive and professional exemptions. In 2001, the IWC adopted new wage orders that provided a more detailed explanation of what constituted administrative work than the previous wage orders. The wage orders are available at the IWC’s website. The new wage orders stated that the activities constituting exempt work “shall be construed in the same manner as such terms are construed in the following regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act effect as of the date of this order: 29 C.F.R. Sections 541.201-205, 541.207-208, 541.210 and 541.215.”

The text of the new wage orders combined with the language of the cited federal regulations led the Supreme Court to conclude that there are two components to the part of the definition requiring that administrative work be directly related to management policies or general business operations. The work must be qualitatively administrative, and quantitatively of substantial importance to the management or operations of the business. Administrative work includes work done by white collar employees engaged in servicing a business, which may include advising management, planning, negotiating and representing the company. In light of those principles, it was inappropriate to adopt the administrative/production dichotomy as a dispositive test.

In the end, the Court declined to adopt any bright line rules. “The essence of our holding is that, in resolving whether work qualifies as administrative, courts must consider the particular facts before them and apply the language of the statutes and wage orders at issue.” It also declined to rule whether the claims adjusters in the case before it were exempt. “We express no opinion on the strength of the parties’ relative positions. We merely hold that the Court of Appeal majority erred in its analysis.”

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