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Court construes ‘particular weight’ requirement broadly
Certain salaried workers were properly classified as exempt from state and federal overtime provisions, held the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, because their employee evaluations and recommendations were given "particular weight" by management in retention, promotion and demotion decisions, qualifying them for the so-called executive exemption.
The plaintiffs brought suit against ConAgra Foods, alleging that they had been misclassified as exempt employees and, as a result, were owed unpaid overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Specifically, ConAgra had invoked the executive exemption with regard to the plaintiffs, all of whom had been employed in the salaried position of "team leader." As team leaders, the plaintiffs were responsible for evaluating the performance and behavior of hourly employees and had the authority to reassign hourly employees and recommend their discipline to management.
The plaintiffs focused their misclassification challenge on one of the exemption's four required elements, arguing that their recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status of other employees were not given "particular weight." However, pointing to their demonstrated influence on change-of-status decisions, the district court concluded that the plaintiffs qualified for the executive exemption and, consequently, granted summary judgment to ConAgra on the plaintiffs' claims under the FLSA and state wage and hour law.
The 8th Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment, noting that the "particular weight" standard is relatively low, as it can be met by simply showing that the input of a purported executive had more influence on an employment decision than that of an hourly employee. The court determined that such was true in the plaintiffs' case, citing evidence that the plaintiffs' evaluations and recommendations were routinely acted upon by management.
In reaching its decision, the 8th Circuit also highlighted evidence of the plaintiffs' authority to fill temporary vacancies and manage the scheduling of hourly employees as factors that tended to demonstrate the applicability of the executive exemption.
Garrison v. ConAgra Foods Packaged Foods LLC, 8th Cir., Nos. 15-1177/15-1428 (Aug. 15, 2016).
Professional Pointer: When updating employees' exemption status in connection with the Department of Labor's new overtime rule, which becomes effective Dec. 1, 2016, employers should be mindful of the potential applicability of the executive exemption to first-line supervisors, provided that, in addition to meeting the exemption's other requirements, the supervisors have significant input into the company's employment decisions.
Brett A. Janich is an attorney at the Worklaw® Network member firm of Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson PC in Birmingham, Ala.
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