This week, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the Department of Labor’s rulemaking procedures, criticizing the agency for explicitly changing its long-standing treatment  of automobile service advisors as overtime exempt while saying “almost nothing” regarding the reasons for the abrupt change.

The decision, echoing earlier criticisms of the DOL by the Court for taking new positions on who is and isn’t exempt in Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp. when considering the exempt status of pharmaceutical sales representatives, may be of use to employers in challenging other recent DOL regulatory changes.

The Encino Motorcars Decision

Automobile service advisors employed by dealerships are generally responsible for meeting with customers, listening to their concerns about their cars, suggesting repair or maintenance services, selling new accessories or replacement parts, recording service orders, following up with customers as services are performed, and explaining repair and maintenance work when customers return for their vehicles.

The exempt status of such employees flip-flopped throughout the 1960s and 1970s; however, in 1978 the DOL issued an opinion letter specifically taking the position that service advisors could be overtime exempt under 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(10)(A). The DOL confirmed this position nine years later when it clarified in its Field Operations Handbook that service advisors were to be treated as exempt. Finally, in 2008, the DOL issued a notice of proposed rulemaking stating that it intended to revise its regulations to reflect the overwhelming court authority on the matter and its own long-standing practice on the issue.

In 2011, DOL issued a final rule addressing service advisors, as well as a number of other issues on a broad range of topics.  Many of these reversed course from previous long-held DOL positions, including the DOL’s announcement that its 2008 proposal on service advisors would be rejected and the final rule would state the exact opposite: that service advisors are not exempt because they do not themselves sell automobiles.

In Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, the Supreme Court concluded that the Ninth Circuit improperly accorded Chevron deference to the DOL’s 2011 final rule in a suit alleging that the defendant dealership had improperly classified its service advisors. The Ninth Circuit had previously reversed, based on deference to the 2011 regulation, the District Court’s dismissal of the case as to the exemption of service advisors.

The Supreme Court started by noting that it must defer to a federal agency’s interpretation of ambiguous law if that interpretation is a “reasonable” one. But deference is not warranted when the agency does not give “adequate reasons for its decisions” and “where the agency has failed to provide even the minimal level of analysis, its action is arbitrary and capricious and so cannot carry the force of law.” This is particularly important where an agency is changing an existing policy and as such it must “provide a reasoned explanation for the change.”

Under these principles, the Court concluded that the Department’s 2011 regulation was not entitled deference because it offered “barely any explanation” for the change in interpretation. The Court stressed that “[t]he retail automobile and truck dealership industry had relied since 1978 on the Department’s position that service advisors were exempt from the FLSA’s overtime pay requirements” and had “negotiated and structured their compensation plans against this background understanding.” Therefore, “[i]n light of this background, the Department needed a more reasoned explanation for its decision to depart from its existing enforcement policy.” Accordingly, the Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision an instructed it “to interpret the statute in the first instance.”

Potential Implications of the Supreme Court’s Decision

The Court’s ruling won’t have a direct impact on most employers — only a few employ automobile service advisors.  But its reasoning could have wide-ranging implications. The Court commanded that, when reversing course with new regulations, the DOL must show good reasons for the new policy. The automobile service advisor regulation was only one part of a 2011 series of regulations from the DOL in which the DOL changed its regulations, including several proposed interpretations on other FLSA issues from the DOL during the Bush Administration, including the tip credit, tip pooling, and fluctuating workweek.  To the extent the DOL’s explanation for the change is wanting, those changes are now subject to challenge.