Supreme Court Frees up Federal Agencies’ Rights to Reinterpret Regulations at Will

In case you haven’t heard, the U. S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld federal agencies’ rights to not have to go through formal rule-making to make changes to rules that interpret regulations. On March 9, 2015, the high court concluded that the U. S. Department of Labor (DOL) acted properly in issuing an “administrator interpretation” that reclassifies mortgage loan officers as overtime-eligible under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). (Perez vs. Mortgage Bankers Association, No. 13-1041).

Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion that was backed by Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas who each wrote supporting opinions. In short, Justice Sotomayor concluded that the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia’s Circuit’s decision in Paralyzed Veterans of America vs. D. C. Arena, 117 F.3d 579 (D. C. Cir. 1997), which states that an agency cannot significantly modify a previously issue definitive interpretation of a rule without public notice and comment is “contrary to the clear text of the” rule-making provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

What Does This Mean?

With this ruling, agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board, Equal Opportunity Commission, and the Department of Labor will be given a wide berth to formally proclaim and put into action rules outside the normal agency rule-making procedures of notice, rebuttal time, and comment considerations from constituent groups. John Meyers, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Atlanta, told Society for Human Resource Management’s SHRM Online that, “We can expect the current administration to use this ruling to back up its authority to pass new or change existing precedents.”

Attorney Tammy McCutchen with Littler in Washington, D. C., and was the DOL Wage & Hour Division Administrator from 2001-2004 said she was not surprised by the decision, that it was a pretty straightforward statutory interpretation. The ruling “should give the DOL the confidence to issue more interpretations of its own regulations through administrator interpretations.”

The Changes in Overtime Eligibility

In 1999 and 2001, the DOL issued interpretive opinions that mortgage loan officers did not fall under the FLSA overtime pay requirement. In 2006, however, a new interpretive rule said those officers were exempt, and employers did not have to pay them overtime.

In 2010, the rule changed again, when the DOL issued an interpretive rule stating that the 2006 rule adopted an incorrect interpretation of a 2004 regulation that what jobs qualified for exemptions from the overtime rule. Once again, mortgage loan officers qualified for overtime pay.

The Mortgage Bankers Association sued with the argument that the department violated the APA by failing to provide public notice and an opportunity to comment on the 2010 interpretive rule before issuance. The District Court agreed with the government’s argument that the plain text of the APA exempts agency interpretive rules from notice and comment rule-making.

The U. S. Court of Appeals for the D. C. Circuit reversed the ruling, relying on Paralyzed Veterans decision.

The High Court agreed to hear the case on June 16, 2014, with oral arguments on December 1st.

Opinions Most Interesting

McCutchen said the “most interesting” part of the decisions was the concurring decisions by Alito, Scalia, and Thomas. They agree that the D. C. Circuit Court cannot create procedural hurdles to an executive agency changing interpretations of their regulations by requiring notice and comment rule-making when these requirements to not exist in the APA.

“They also recognize the problem of unchecked executive agencies issuing interpretations of their own regulations–without notice to the public, but which really do bind the public–and to which courts must defer under prior Supreme Court precedent.”

“The concurring justices seem sympathetic to the evil the D. C. Circuit was trying to address, although they agree the D. C. Circuit’s approach was not consistent with the APA.”

“Instead,” McCutchen said, “The three justices suggest that the court should reconsider prior cases requiring deference to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations.”

In the words of Justice Scalia, “I would, therefore, restore the balance originally struck by the APA with respect with an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations…The agency is free to interpret its own regulations with or without notice and comment; but courts will decide–with no deference to the agency–whether that interpretation is correct.

Disclaimer I am not a licensed attorney. My blogs are based on my own experiences, interviews (where credited), and loads of research, and do not represent legal advice. 

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Supreme Court Frees up Federal Agencies’ Rights to Reinterpret Regulations at Will

15 Employment and Labor Resolutions for 2015, part 1 of 3

Now that the new year is well under way and we have all had an opportunity to settle in and organize ourselves for the coming year, I thought I should share some critical chores that need to be attended to keep you safely out of any legal twists.

Here are your first five resolutions as shared by Constangy, Brooks:

1. Make sure your “independent contractors” are really independent contractors. “Independent contractors” are under scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, state and local agencies, plaintiffs’ lawyers, and union organizers. A mis-classification can cost you back taxes, back pay (including overtime), and back benefits, as well as penalties and interest. If you determine the manner in which an independent contractor performs his duties, including where and when the duties are performed, then the person is an employee.

2. Review your email policies. The NLRB recently found that employees generally have a right to use employer email systems during non-working time in support of union organizing and concerted activity. The Board’s decision means that many employer email use policies, as currently drafted, would probably be found to violate the National Labor Relations Act if an unfair labor practice charge were filed or a union tried to organize employees and argued that the employer’s email policy interfered with the organizing efforts. In light of the new “quickie election” rule that the NLRB issued last month, both union and non-union employers would be well advised to review their email policies and revise as needed. (The “quickie election” rule is scheduled to take effect on April 14, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other employer groups, including the Society for Human Resources Management, filed suit on Monday seeking to block the rule.)

3. Review your policies on social media, confidentiality, and “courtesy.” The NLRB is going after garden-variety employer policies, taking the position that the policies interfere with and have a chilling effect on employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity. Among the commonplace policies under attack are those requiring that information about the company or employees be kept confidential; policies requiring that employees treat each other with courtesy, respect, and civility; and even some policies requiring that employees not disclose confidential and proprietary information. As with the email policies, a non-compliant policy could result in an unfair labor practice charge or the setting aside of an employer victory in a union election.

4. Review your severance agreements. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that certain standard provisions in employee separation agreements unlawfully interfere with employee rights to bring or cooperate in the investigation of discrimination charges before the EEOC, and has filed suit against some employers using agreements with terms that the EEOC doesn’t like. One of the lawsuits has already been dismissed, but the court in that case did not make a ruling as to whether the EEOC’s position had merit. Even if you decide to take your chances with your current agreement, it’s not a bad idea to consider toning down provisions that you know the EEOC will find objectionable.

5. Review your leave policies and their administration. It’s not just the Family and Medical Leave Act anymore, although that’s enough in itself. You’ve probably seen that a number of states most recently, Massachusetts have enacted paid sick leave laws. Do your leave policies comply with the laws of the all the jurisdictions where you operate? And what do you do when an employee reaches the end of a sick leave or disability leave period? If you automatically terminate, then you could be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as state or local disability rights laws.

This is a lot to take in, I know, but the reviews must be done by either your counsel (who specializes in labor law) or by an experienced human resource professional. Check in next week for another five HR resolutions.

Disclaimer I am not a licensed attorney. My blogs are based on my own experiences, interviews (where credited), and loads of research, and do not represent legal advice.
15 Employment and Labor Resolutions for 2015, part 1 of 3