Seyfarth Synopsis: A recent decision highlights why the FLSA is not always the remedial statute created to protect low-income workers by holding that four commission-based sales representatives, each earning six figures, were not exempt from the overtime requirements because they were not paid on a salary basis.

Our readers are well aware that under the FLSA, employers are required to pay employees overtime equal to time and one-half the regular rate for all hours worked over 40 hours in a workweek unless an exemption applies. When making exempt classification decisions, the focus tends to be on whether employees are doing the kind of work that would satisfy the applicable duties test and whether employees are making enough to satisfy the income thresholds. But the FLSA exemptions don’t concern only how much employees are paid, but also how they are paid. Though sometimes overlooked, technical requirements about how employees are paid can carry the day in a misclassification lawsuit, leaving a trail of decisions that often seem contrary to the purpose set out by the creators of the FLSA. This was one such decision.

This decision illustrates how the FLSA often is applied in a way that is a far cry from what it was originally intended to be: an Act passed during the Great Depression to ensure a living wage for working Americans. In this case, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that four highly compensated sales representatives, who were paid on a commission basis, were not exempt from FLSA’s overtime provisions despite the fact that the plaintiffs each earned well over $100,000 per year. In fact, one sales representative topped out at over $900,000 per year. Across the relevant period, the plaintiffs’ compensation averaged about $470,00 per year.

The defendants argued that the plaintiffs were exempt from overtime wages under the highly compensated employee exception. Under this exemption, the employee must perform office or non-manual work and be paid a total annual compensation of $100,000 or more (which must include at least $455 per week paid on a salary or fee basis) and must customarily and regularly perform at least one of the duties of an exempt executive, administrative or professional employee. The defendants argued that even though the plaintiffs were paid by commissions on sales, the highly compensated employee exemption applies because the commissions are “fees,” so they were paid on a fee basis. The plaintiffs argued that the highly compensated employee exemption applies only when employees are paid on a salary basis and that the commissions they received were not “fees.” The court agreed with the plaintiffs, holding that the plaintiffs’ compensation did not meet the highly compensated employee exemption’s salary basis test.

We previously have discussed courts’ construction of the FLSA as “remedial and humanitarian in purpose and must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.” We have argued that courts apply this construction inconsistently and often illogically. And this case serves as one more challenge to the unsupported dicta that we find in many cases stating that, because the FLSA is “remedial and humanitarian,” its exemptions must be “narrowly construed.” Here, we have employees who are very high earners, with two employees making close to one million dollars in a single year, and whose employer is now forced to pay them additional compensation and liquidated damages (and a fee petition for their lawyers is sure to come next). The court construed the FLSA exemptions against these employees narrowly, and we can discern no remedial or humanitarian purpose that the FLSA is serving here. Rather, this decision reflects the FLSA as a statue riddled with technical traps and rigid rules that do not necessarily serve to ensure a living wage for working Americans.