Detention Center Lieutenant Exempt from Overtime

By Jeffrey Rhodes February 13, 2018
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​A lieutenant at a New Mexico detention center who was paid a salary and directed inmate programs could not maintain an overtime compensation claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) despite performing subordinates' duties, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico ruled.

The plaintiff was a former employee of Roosevelt County, which is a political subdivision of the state of New Mexico that operates the Roosevelt County Detention Center in Portales, N.M. The Roosevelt County detention administrator hired the plaintiff on April 9, 2013, with a modified yearly salary of $35,238, which equaled $677.65 per week. According to Roosevelt County, as a lieutenant the plaintiff was in charge of developing, directing and improving the inmate programs at the detention center and was in charge of the detention center when the detention administrator was absent from the facility. The plaintiff disputed that he had this level of authority and claimed that he was stripped of all duties as a lieutenant in March 2015 and performed the duties of a floor officer.

As a lieutenant, the plaintiff was tasked with supervising subordinate officers in the facility, including the sergeants, corporals and floor officers. The plaintiff participated in the interview process for floor officers at the detention center and made recommendations as to who should be hired or not hired. He also participated in discussions concerning who should be fired and was involved in the discipline process at the facility.

During the plaintiff's employment, the detention center was understaffed; thus, the plaintiff was required to work extra hours. The plaintiff worked in excess of 40 hours a week, including holidays, vacation days, snow days and on-call duty after his regular hours, to comply with Roosevelt County's requirements. The plaintiff claimed that he never received a regular lunch break because he was expected to be working and did not receive the mandated 15-minute breaks under Roosevelt County's detention policy. While sergeants were entitled to overtime compensation, lieutenants (like the plaintiff) were not.

Based on these circumstances, the plaintiff filed suit against the Roosevelt County Board of Commissioners in federal court in New Mexico for unpaid overtime compensation under the FLSA and for breach of contract in failing to pay him overtime or for regularly scheduled lunch breaks. Roosevelt County filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff was exempt from the FLSA's overtime pay requirements as a lieutenant under the FLSA's administrative and executive exemptions and that the county did not breach any contract.

To establish that an employee is exempt from overtime exemption under the FLSA, an employer must satisfy both the salary-basis test and the duties test for the employee's position. Roosevelt County satisfied the salary-basis test by showing that the plaintiff was paid more than $455 per week. With respect to the duties test, Roosevelt County argued that the plaintiff performed exempt administrative duties because his primary responsibilities included directing the inmate programs at the facility, acting as the officer in charge when the administrator was away and supervising subordinate officers.

The county also argued that the plaintiff performed exempt executive duties because his role as director of programs was directly related to the overall successful management of the detention center and because he directed the work of two or more employees when the administrator was away.

The plaintiff countered that, for most of his time at work, he performed the duties of a nonexempt floor officer because of understaffing at the center and that he was closely supervised in his role by two consultants. The county responded that while there may have been a couple of months when the plaintiff performed subordinate duties, his supervisory position required him to do whatever was necessary to get the job done, even if that meant performing the duties of other positions.

The court found that the primary duty test was not strictly based on time worked but on the importance of the employee's relative duties. Given the evidence, the court found that the plaintiff customarily and regularly directed others' work and engaged in an exempt administrative task by directing inmate programs. This was his primary duty as lieutenant and involved the use of independent judgment.

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

The court thus granted Roosevelt County's motion for summary judgment on the FLSA claim. It declined to exercise jurisdiction over the plaintiff's breach of contract claim and thus dismissed it without prejudice to refiling in state court.

Parrish v. Roosevelt County Board of Supervisors, D.N.M., No. 2:15-cv-00703 (Dec. 31, 2017).

Professional Pointer: Employers are well-advised not to assign lower-level duties to supervisors, as this may endanger their exemption from overtime compensation. Nevertheless, the requirement that supervisors temporarily fill in to perform the duties of their subordinate staff generally will not result in loss of the exemption from overtime.

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

 

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