Chef with Management Duties Could Proceed with Overtime Claim

By Jeffrey Rhodes Feb 2, 2017
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A chief chef at a Texas hospital who spent at least 10 percent of her time on management duties could go to trial on her overtime and retaliation claims, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas has ruled.

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Arlington, Texas, hired Flor Alba Aponte in 2005 as the chief chef of its food service department. Aponte supervised other staff, scheduled their work, and directed the preparation and service of food to hospital patients, doctors, employees and guests. Aponte claimed that she did not have the authority to hire and fire employees or set hospital policy and that she only spent 10 percent of her time on supervisory duties.

During her employment, Aponte performed overtime work for the hospital. Aponte's supervisor, Cheri Posey, noted in her 2014 evaluation that Aponte needed to seek preapproval before working overtime. Aponte claimed that she worked at least 50 hours a week and the hospital failed to record and pay her for overtime hours.

The hospital fired Aponte on April 21, 2015. Aponte claimed that, about one hour before she was fired, she submitted an overtime complaint to the CEO of the hospital. The hospital denied that it was aware of the internal complaint before it fired her. Aponte also claimed that she submitted a complaint with the HR department in October 2014 and asked an HR representative if she was entitled to overtime when she started working at the hospital.

After her discharge, Aponte filed a lawsuit alleging that the hospital failed to pay her overtime compensation, retaliated against her in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and defrauded her. The hospital removed the case to federal court, where a magistrate judge was appointed to consider the hospital's motion for summary judgment that sought to dismiss her claims before trial.

While the magistrate judge dismissed Aponte's fraud claim, she rejected the hospital's summary judgment motion concerning Aponte's FLSA claims, which she allowed to proceed to trial. The hospital filed objections to the magistrate judge's decision with the district judge.

The district judge upheld the decision because the hospital failed to establish that Aponte was an exempt manager under the FLSA.

To prove that the exemption applies, the employer must show that management is the employee's "primary duty." An employee may qualify as exempt even if she spends a minority of her time on management duties if those duties are her most important duties. However, this was not proven by the hospital, and the hospital failed to show that Aponte disobeyed instructions from her supervisors to focus more on her management duties. As a result, Aponte raised a genuine question of material facts for a jury to decide about the importance of her management duties.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Determining Overtime Eligibility in the United States]

The court also found that the retaliation claims could proceed to trial because Aponte had alleged that she complained about her wages shortly before she was fired. The hospital asserted that Aponte could not prove that the hospital's CEO had even read her complaint before it decided to fire her. However, the court found that Aponte's allegations were sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Aponte's complaints about overtime compensation caused her discharge by the hospital.

Aponte v. Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, E.D. Tex., No. 4:15-CV-00422 (Dec. 29, 2016).

Professional Pointer: The "primary duty" test was changed in 2004 to make it easier for managerial employees to qualify for the exemption from overtime. However, this does not mean that the exemption always applies whenever an employee has any supervisory duties over other employees. Rather, the employee must exercise authority over the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion, or other change of status of at least two employees, or the employer must give particular weight to the employee's suggestions about these matters regarding two or more employees.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

 

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