Today the Supreme Court sided with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), holding that a federal agency’s interpretive rules are exempt from notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures. Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass’n575 U.S. ___ (2015). The Court’s decision means that the DOL (and other federal agencies) may issue initial and amended interpretive rules without advance notice and without considering input from interested parties. 

DOL “Flip-Flopped” on Interpretive FLSA Rule 

In this case, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) challenged the DOL’s most recent interpretation on whether loan officers fell within the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) administrative exemption following a series of “flip-flops” in the DOL’s interpretation. In 1999 and 2001, the DOL issued opinion letters stating that mortgage-loan officers do not qualify for the administrative exemption to overtime pay requirements. After new regulations regarding the exemption were issued in 2004, the MBA requested a new interpretation under the revised regulations. In 2006, the DOL issued an opinion letter in which it changed its position, deciding that mortgage-loan officers do qualify for the administrative exemption. In 2010, however, the DOL changed its interpretation again when it withdrew the 2006 opinion letter and issued an Administrator’s Interpretation without notice or comment stating that loan officers once again do not fall within the administrative exemption. 

The MBA sued the DOL, claiming that the DOL needed to use the notice-and-comment process established by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when it planned to issue a new interpretation of a regulation that differs significantly from its prior interpretation. 

Distinction Between Legislative Rules and Interpretive Rules 

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the text of the APA specifically excludes interpretive rules from the notice-and-comment process, so the DOL was free to change its interpretation on loan officers qualifying for the administrative exemption without providing advance notice or seeking public comment first. The Court pointed to the difference between “legislative rules” that have the force and effect of law, which must go through the notice-and-comment period, and “interpretive rules” that do not have the force and effect of law and, therefore, are not subject to the notice-and-comment obligation. 

Finding that the clear text of the APA exempted interpretive rules from the notice-and-comment process, the Court overruled prior precedent in a line of cases that has come to be known as the Paralyzed Veterans doctrine. Under that doctrine, if an agency had given its regulation a definitive interpretation, the agency needed to use the APA’s notice-and-comment process before issuing a significantly revised interpretation. The Court’s ruling today specifies that no notice or comment process is needed for interpretive rules, whether it is an initial interpretation or a subsequently revised one. 

Implications of Court’s Decision 

Today’s ruling means that the DOL’s interpretation excluding mortgage-loan officers from the administrative exemption stands. More broadly, it means that federal agencies, such as the DOL, are permitted to issue and amend interpretations of their regulations that will take effect immediately without any advance notice to the regulated parties. Accordingly, employers should stay on top of new developments so as not to miss any new regulatory interpretations that may impact their employment practices.