Court of Appeals affirms overtime ruling for non-exempt worker under FSLA

The Second Circuit has ruled in favor of a worker who was denied overtime pay, ruling that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not exempt workers whose job skills are not customarily the product of advanced educational training.

The case is Young v. Cooper Cameron Corp., decided on November 12. Young was a highly-skilled Product Design Specialist II with 20 years of engineering-type experience but no college degree. He worked with hydraulic power units which contain fluid under pressure for use in connection with oil drilling rigs. After Young was let go in a reduction-in-force, he sued for all the the overtime which defendant had denied him.

The legal standard governing whether a worker is exempt from overtime pay is whether he is employed in a professional capacity. Regulations define "professional" as employees whose work requires "knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study." We presume that if the job requires an academic degree, the job is exempt from FSLA. (This means that lawyers who did not go to law school are still exempt).

As the Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Pooler and Parker) frames it, "the issue is whether a position can be exempt notwithstanding the lack of an educational requirement, if the duties actually performed require knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning." The judgment in Young's favor is affirmed. Chief Judge Jacobs writes, "an employee is not an exempt professional unless his work requires knowledge that is customarily acquired after a prolonged course of specialized, intellectual instruction and study.." Although Young had specialized knowledge, he was entitled to overtime under FSLA because his job did not customarily require an advanced degree. In fact, none of the employees in his title had more than a high school education.

The Court of Appeals handled this issue on a clean slate in this Circuit, but it does note that other federal circuit courts have ruled the same way. The Court of Appeals does reject as non-persuasive some contrary district court rulings and an unpublished Eleventh Circuit case. Although this is an issue of first impression in the Second Circuit, the Court of Appeals also sustains the district court's finding that Cooper Cameron's erroneous classification of Young as exempt was willful, which entitles Young to additional damages.