Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers seeking to show that they correctly have classified an employee as exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements often have faced hostility from courts under the misimpression that FLSA exemptions must be “construed narrowly.” Today the United Supreme Court put to rest the “narrow construction” doctrine, signaling to district and appellate courts that FLSA exemptions should be construed plainly as written and without a thumb tilting the scales toward a non-exempt finding.

Today, in a 5-4 opinion (Justice Thomas writing for the majority) the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit in Navarro et al. v. Encino Motorcars LLC, holding that car dealership “service advisors” are “salesm[e]n . . . primarily engaged in . . . servicing automobiles” and therefore are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements under 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(10)(A). We have been tracking this case since January 2016, as the outcome of this decision is likely to have a significant impact on the nation’s 18,000 franchised car dealerships and estimated 45,000 service advisors. While this opinion surely gives a sigh of relief and much needed certainty to automobile industry dealerships, one particular point made by Justice Thomas likely will provide significant help to all employers asserting the application of any FLSA exemption.

In its underlying decision denying exempt status to dealership service advisors, the Ninth Circuit had reasoned that the FLSA and its exemptions under Section 213(b) should be “construed narrowly,” citing a line of several appellate cases to support this construction of the FLSA (without delving into the basis for the cited language itself). The Supreme Court, however, took this reasoning head on in Navarro, “reject[ing] this principle as a useful guidepost for interpreting the FLSA.” Justice Thomas noted in his opinion that the FLSA “gives no ‘textual indication’ that its exemptions should be construed narrowly” and there is therefore “no reason to give [them] anything other than a fair (rather than a ‘narrow’) interpretation.” Further, Thomas noted that “the FLSA has over two dozen exemptions in § 213(b) alone . . . . Those exemptions are as much a part of the FLSA’s purpose as the overtime pay requirements.” Justice Thomas made no bones about picking apart this “cannon” of statutory construction, noting that “the narrow-construction principle relies on the flawed premise that the FLSA ‘pursues’ its remedial purpose ‘at all costs.’” Rather, Thomas noted, the FLSA and its exemptions should be construed plainly, as they are written, with no bent one way or the other (“[w]e thus have no license to give the exemption anything but a fair reading.”)

Justice Thomas’s direct repudiation of the “narrow construction” argument aligns with our recent analysis from August 2017, which concluded that the FLSA and its exemptions should not be construed any more narrowly than how they are written. Courts frequently insist that the FLSA’s exemptions “are to be construed narrowly” while the FLSA’s remedial provisions should “be construed liberally to apply to the furthest reaches consistent with Congressional intent.” We further asserted that no reasoned analysis of the FLSA should conclude that the Act and its exemptions should be interpreted lopsidedly in favor of employees and against employers and that the “narrowly” vs. “liberally” dichotomy derives from unsubstantiated and conclusory language from a 1945 Supreme Court case. At best, we said, the language constitutes an imprecise assertion that the FLSA’s exemptions should not be so broad as to swallow the remedial nature of the FLSA and, at worst, the language amounts to unsupported dicta never intended as a grand pronouncement of how courts should interpret the FLSA. Our analysis further concluded that courts tend to quote this language to justify a decision’s outcome; when a court decision favors an employee, a court is more likely to cite the “narrowly/liberally” language, when a decision favors an employer, a court is less likely to cite this language.

Consistent with the reasoning noted above, the Supreme Court in Navarro forever repudiated the argument that the FLSA’s exemptions should be construed narrowly. Employers accordingly will be well served by the Supreme Court’s reasoned denunciation of this baseless and oft-cited pronouncement. Further, the logical consequence of the Supreme Court’s Encino Motorcars opinion should serve to banish the “construed liberally” corollary as well. Indeed, as Thomas noted in the opinion, the FLSA should be given nothing but a fair reading. As we noted in our August 2017 analysis, there is no sound basis for maintaining that the FLSA should be construed liberally in favor of employees based alone on the fact that the FLSA is “humanitarian and remedial” legislation (which forms the sole ostensible basis for construing the FLSA broadly in favor of employees). “What piece of legislation passed by Congress is not intended as remedial or humanitarian? It would seem that one has to presume that Congress is always attempting to benefit the public, and that it does not classify its legislation as though some is for the public good, some is for the benefit of lobbying or business groups, and some is to score political points. All legislation is aimed in some way at benefitting the public interest (or at least we would like to, and have to, assume).”

With sound reasoning, the Supreme Court has disposed of an oft-cited yet fundamentally flawed method for construing the FLSA’s exemptions under § 213(b) and provides employers with a compelling counter to litigants seeking to apply the FLSA in a manner broader than the statutory text allows.