That exemption analysis is fact specific is one of the only central tenets of wage-and-hour law on which all practitioners agree. The facts surrounding an individual’s employment must be analyzed in every case, whether to determine an employee’s level of discretion and independent judgment (under the administrative exemption), to determine if their primary duty was management (under the executive exemption), or to ascertain whether a degree is required for their job and whether skills associated with that degree are required to perform the work (under the learned professional exemption). These factual determinations must be made by reference to the DOL’s guiding regulations, which are not always clear. In a new decision evidencing the difficulties associated with this legal analysis, a Mississippi federal judge denied summary judgment as to plaintiff paralegal and defendant law firm for a claim that she was misclassified pursuant to the learned professional exemption. Blackmore v. Vaughn & Bowden, P.A., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79027 (S.D. Miss. June 7, 2012).
In Blackmore, the paralegal Plaintiff Blackmore possessed “a four year undergraduate degree . . . in . . . paralegal studies and psychology . . . [and] a master's degree in public relations.” Further, Defendant law firm alleged that “her work was essentially exclusive in the mass tort unit of [the firm] where she was the senior paralegal and responsible for organizing and directing tasks of other paralegals. While conceding “that many paralegals should not fall within the professional exemption” (in deference to the DOL’s guidance set forth in 29 CFR § 541.301(b)(7)), Defendant “maintain[ed] that a paralegal that has attained a four year degree in paralegal studies together with advanced training or one who works in a specialized field where she controls her own schedule and activities should be exempt under the learned professional exemption.” Based on Plaintiff’s disputing of the firm’s characterization of her duties, the Court found “factual disputes in this case in regard to this that should be presented to a trier of fact.”
Blackmore does not contradict the DOL’s guidance that “typical” paralegals who are required only to possess a two-year degree likely do not qualify for the learned professional exemption. However, it demonstrates the important general rule, applicable to almost all jobs, that an individual’s duties are determinative, and that that determination may not fit squarely within previously issued guidance, whether opinion letter, regulation or judicial opinion.