The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) is the federal law that establishes, among other things, that employees who are classified as “non-exempt” are entitled to be paid a minimum hourly wage and overtime pay when working more than 40 hours in any workweek. A person who brings a successful FLSA lawsuit is also entitled to attorney’s fees and liquidated damages. Generally, and conversely, “exempt” employees are those who are exempt from the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the FLSA. Exempt employees must be paid on a salary basis (and a minimum statutory required under the FLSA) and must perform certain duties. Exempt employees include executives, administrators, and professionals.
The question that we are considering now is this: when an employer fails to pay one or more weeks of pay to an exempt employee whose exempt status is not in dispute, does that render the employee non-exempt and, therefore, entitle such employee file a lawsuit for violation of the FLSA and, in so doing, recover the lucrative damages and other relief thereunder? The short answer is no.
The Southern District of Florida considered this very issue in the case of Tadili v. Ferber, 12-80216-CIV, 2013 WL 12101132, at *2 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 22, 2013). In that case, the plaintiff, an master dental technician (exempt as both a learned professional and a highly compensated employee), made the “convoluted argument” that since he did not receive his salary for five of the seven weeks he worked, he could not be considered an exempt employee. The court noted, “An employee who is either a learned professional or a highly paid employee who is not paid for work performed may have a breach of contract claim for nonpayment of wages, but such employee will not have an FLSA claim.” The fact that the employee was not paid did not allow him to claim he was entitled to a minimum wage as a non-exempt employee. Based on this reasoning, the court went on to grant the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
Other cases holding that non-payment of wages to an otherwise exempt employee does not give rise to an FLSA claim include Nicholson v. World Bus. Network, Inc., 105 F.3d 1361 (11th Cir. 1997) (notingCongress’s intent in formulating the FLSA was to protect “poorer and powerless” workers, whereas the exemptions are carved out for those in higher employment positions who do not require such protections), and Orton v. Johnny’s Lunch Franchise, LLC, 668 F.3d 843 (6th Cir. 2012). See also Donovan v. Agnew, 712 F.2d 1509 (1st Cir. 1983).
It is not unusual for an employer to run into cash flow issues and be unable to meet their payroll obligations. When this occurs, employees may rush to hire legal counsel to sue, and savvy plaintiff’s attorneys know that the FLSA is the best and most lucrative basis for a collections claim. Additionally, the FLSA allows employees to personally sue business owners and managers as well if they come within the definition of “employer” under the statute. These lawsuits are often tough to defend (because liability is clear) and costly (because the statute provides for attorneys’ fees and liquidated damages). However, if the employee bringing the lawsuit is clearly exempt – based on their salary and their duties – the foregoing line of cases should knock the wind out of plaintiff’s counsel’s proverbial sails. No attorney can continue to litigate a claim in federal court unless the facts alleged are supported by the evidence and are warranted under existing law or a non-frivolous argument to modify the law.
As always, when faced with these issues or served with an FLSA lawsuit – or even a demand letter – the best practice is to always consult legal counsel. Whatever you do, do not ignore the threat of an FLSA lawsuit or actual claim.
Ellen M. Leibovitch
Board Certified Labor & Employment Lawyer
ASSOULINE & BERLOWE, P.A.
2101 N.W. Corporate Blvd., Suite 410
Boca Raton, Florida 33431