In Pippins v. KPMG LLP, No. 13-889 (2d Cir. July 22, 2014), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously held that entry-level audit associates (“Plaintiffs”) at KPMG LLP qualify for the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (“FLSA”) “learned professionals” overtime exemption.  The Second Circuit explained that, while the closely-supervised employees were “the most junior members” of the KPMG accountancy team and did not “make high-level decisions,” their work still required sufficient knowledge and judgment to qualify for the exemption.

The FLSA exempts employers from paying overtime to workers whose “primary duty” is “the performance of work requiring advanced knowledge in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.”  Such workers may qualify for the FLSA’s “learned professional” exemption provided that their work is: (i) “predominantly intellectual in character, and requires the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment”; (ii) in a “field of science or learning,” such as accounting; and (iii) of a type where “specialized academic training is a standard prerequisite for entrance into the profession.”

While the parties in Pippins agreed that accounting qualifies as a field of “science or learning” under the FLSA, the Second Circuit’s decision provides guidance for employers seeking to determine whether an employee’s position may meet the other two necessary elements for the “learned professional” overtime exemption to apply.

The “Discretion and Judgment” Prong

Noting the lack of guidance in the FLSA’s regulations expounding on the “discretion and judgment” prong, the Court held that, in the “learned professionals” context, employees need not “exercise management authority,” particularly where they work for firms that provide professional services to other businesses, such as KPMG.  Rather, “what matters is whether [employees] exercise intellectual judgment within the domain of their particular expertise.”  As applied to the field of accounting, the Court explained that accounting requires the consistent application of a “professional skepticism” throughout the process of collecting and analyzing data in order to ensure that audits expose potential financial irregularities or accounting improprieties.

The Plaintiffs maintained that they merely exercised simple “common sense,” made only “obvious” observations, followed strict templates and guidelines, and exclusively conducted routine work that was reviewed by supervisors before being assimilated into final audit reports.

However, the Court largely characterized Plaintiffs’ contentions as “confus[ing] being an entry-level member of a profession with not being a professional at all.”  Indeed, the Court observed that the existence of guidelines and supervision is characteristic of professional firms and organizations and is simply intended to provide training and ensure quality work.  The fact that junior professionals are subject to close supervision and must adhere to guidelines “does not relegate [them] to the role or status of non-professional staff.”  The Court further explained that employees can “exercise professional judgment when their discretion in performing core duties is constrained by formal guidelines or when ultimate judgment is deferred to higher authorities.”

With respect to Plaintiffs, the Court found that their use of templates, the specific guidelines they were required to follow and the supervision of their work, did not deprive them of the need to exercise professional skepticism throughout the auditing process.  In the Court’s view, the Plaintiffs were still required to exercise their specialized knowledge of accounting in order to determine when to deviate from such guidelines, or when to bring questions to superiors. “It is a hallmark of informed professional judgment,” the Second Circuit explained, “to understand when a problem can be dealt with by the professional herself, and when the issue needs to be brought to the attention of a senior colleague with greater experience, wisdom, or authority.”

The “Specialized Academic Training” Prong

With respect to the “specialized academic training” prong of the “learned professional” exemption, the Court held that “the requirement will usually be satisfied by a few years of relevant, specialized training,” and that “a bachelor’s degree in a germane field [often] suffices.”  By contrast, the Second Circuit observed that generic, non-specialized educational requirements, such as a requirement that an employee possess a general bachelor’s degree in “any field,” are insufficient to establish the prerequisite.  Finally, the Court explained that to determine whether the exemption applies, the educational prerequisites for entry into the particular profession must be customary.  Because the audit associates were generally required to either be eligible or nearly eligible to become licensed Certified Public Accountants (“CPAs”) and the “vast majority” of them possessed accounting degrees and could take the CPA exam, the Court held that the Plaintiffs work required specialized educational instruction.

Plaintiffs contended, however, that they did not meet the specialized academic training requirement because their job duties didn’t actually call on them to employ the knowledge they acquired in the course of their studies.  The Court acknowledged the potential merit of this argument in the case of a well-educated professional who is never expected to draw on her education in practice.  However, the Court quickly dispatched the argument as it pertained to Plaintiffs, finding that the “average classics or biochemistry major” would not be able to adequately perform or fully understand the auditors’ work functions.

Conclusion

The Pippins decision offers greater clarity to employers in applying the “learned professional” exemption.  The decision establishes that, even where low-level employees are closely supervised, regularly perform routine tasks, and follow established templates and guidelines, their work can still demand enough professional judgment to qualify them as “learned professionals”.