Ninth Circuit Interprets Learned Professional Exemption

The State of Washington's Department of Social and Health Services employ social workers, whom the agency classifies as exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The state relies on the "learned professional exemption," which means "an employee whose primary duties require 'knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.'” 29 C.F.R. § 541.300(a)(2)(I).

The state's requirements for social worker positions included:
at least a “[b]achelor’s degree or higher in social services, human services, behavioral sciences, or an allied field,” as well as eighteen months as a Social Worker 1 or two years’ experience in an equivalent position. Candidates for Social Worker 3 must meet the same educational requirements and have additional work experience. Within one year of their appointment, new employees in these positions must complete a formal training program that includes four weeks of classroom instruction and two weeks of field instruction.
The state also had guidance regarding when equivalent work experience could substitute for specialized degrees.

Reversing the district court, the court of appeals decided that the social worker position was not "exempt" automatically and required a trial to find out the facts.  The court explained:
while social workers no doubt have diverse jobs that benefit from a multi-disciplinary background, 6 the “learned professional” exemption applies to positionsthat require “a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction,” not positions that draw from many varied fields. While particular coursework in each of the acceptable fields may be related to social work, DSHS admits that it does not examine an applicant’s coursework once it determines that the applicant’s degree is within one of those fields. For the “learned professional” exemption to apply, the knowledge required to perform the duties of a position must come from “advanced specialized intellectual instruction” rather than practical experience. 29 C.F.R. § 541.301(d). The requirement of a degree or sufficient coursework in any of several fields broadly related to a position suggests that only general academic training is necessary, with the employer relying upon apprenticeship and experience to develop the advanced skills necessary for effective performance as a social worker.
So, the issue is not whether a job requires a college degree generally.  The issue is whether the job requires a college degree in a particulars skill that is directly related to the job.

The case is Solis v. State DSHS and the opinion is here.