As we’ve discussed on this blog before, the Supreme Court’s decision in Christopher v SmithKline Beecham Corp. had many layers. In holding that pharmaceutical sales representatives were subject to the FLSA’s outside sales exemption, the Court touched on the purpose and spirit of the Act. Justice Alito, the author of the majority opinion, explained that highly paid employees, such as pharmaceutical sales representatives, are “hardly the kind of employees that the FLSA was intended to protect.” This dicta could apply well beyond the confines of pharmaceutical representatives and the outside sales exemption. It could suggest an additional consideration in any FLSA lawsuit involving highly paid individuals.
Last week, the Eleventh Circuit picked up and expanded this line with its decision in Pioch v. Ibex Engineering Services, Inc. Pioch worked at Ibex for almost ten years as a computer software and hardware engineer. Ibex paid him on an hourly basis, ranging from $50 to $85.40 per hour. He received straight time for any hours he worked over 40 in a week, but, based on the computer professional exemption, Pioch did not receive an overtime premium. The computer professional exemption applies to employees who perform certain computer-related duties and are paid at least $455 per week or, if compensated on an hourly basis, $27.63 per hour.
Pioch resigned from Ibex after an internal investigation concluded that he improperly collected per diem payments amounting to nearly $150,000. As a result of the investigation, Ibex withheld Pioch’s final paycheck of $13,367.20, which represented three weeks of work. Pioch brought suit in the Southern District of Florida, alleging, among other things, that Ibex violated the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements by withholding his last paycheck and failing to compensate him at all for three weeks of employment.
The district court granted Ibex summary judgment on Pioch’s FLSA claims, finding that the computer professional exemption applied to Pioch’s entire employment with Ibex, including the last three weeks of employment when he didn’t receive any pay at all.
The Eleventh Circuit agreed. In reaching this decision, the court followed the Supreme Court’s lead in Christopher, and engaged in its own analysis of the purpose and spirit of the FLSA. It explained that “read[ing] the FLSA blindly, without appreciation for the social goals Congress sought, would … do violence to the FLSA’s spirit.” After reviewing these goals, the court concluded that Congress intended the FLSA to “aid the unprotected, unorganized, and lowest paid of the nation’s working population”—not “a highly-paid hourly employee typically earning over six figures a year,” like Pioch.
Guided by this interpretation, the Eleventh Circuit held that Pioch’s exempt status did not “evaporate” simply because Ibex withheld his final paycheck. Ibex promised to pay Pioch many times more than the minimum amount required under the computer professional exemption. Ibex’s alleged failure to follow this promise by withholding Pioch’s final paycheck is a matter for state contract law, not the FLSA. To this point, the court explained that “[w]hat Mr. Pioch is essentially trying to do is assert a state-law breach of contract claim, for his agreed-to hourly rate, through the FLSA.” The FLSA, though, is “not a vehicle for litigating breach of contract disputes,” and therefore Pioch’s FLSA claim was properly dismissed.
Like Christopher, the Pioch decision is helpful to employers on multiple levels. Narrowly, it finds that the withholding of a final paycheck does not invalidate the exempt status of an hourly employee otherwise subject to the computer professional exemption. More broadly, it indicates, as the Supreme Court did, that the spirit and purpose of the FLSA is a valid consideration when determining the Act’s application to highly paid employees.