California Supreme Court Clarifies Administrative Exemption

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision rejecting the lower court's interpretation of the "administrative exemption."

Frances Harris and other claims adjusters sued Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., claiming that claims adjusters were mis-classified as exempt.  The Court of Appeal agreed, holding that claims adjusters are part of an insurance company's "production" and therefore cannot be performing "administrative" functions.  The Court of Appeal also included some disturbing language in its opinion regarding how "important" the administrative work must be, and that only work at a high level would count towards the exemption.

The Supreme Court disagreed.  However, the Court limited its holding to setting out the proper standards for determining whether someone is performing "administrative" work.   It did not rule one way or the other regarding whether the claims adjusters were exempt.

The Supreme Court summarized as follows:

Federal Regulations former part 541.205(a), (b), and (c) must be read together in order to apply the ―directly related‖ test and properly determine whether the work at issue satisfies the administrative exemption. For example, former part 541.205(b) supplied a general description of the types of duties that constitute ―administrative operations of the business. It included work performed by ―white-collar employees engaged in ̳servicing‘ a business as, for example, advising the management, planning, negotiating, [and] representing the company. The dissent below argued, ―That is what claims adjusters do—they negotiate settlements (and conclude some without seeking approval), advise management, and process claims.‖ The incorporation of former part 541.205(b) shows that whether work is part of the ―administrative operations‖ of a business depends, in part, on whether it involves advising management, planning, negotiating, and representing the company. It is not so narrowly limited as the majority below declared. 

In addition to the above regulations, the Supreme Court referred the Court of Appeal to the Wage Order definition of the administrative exemption.

Thus, the "duties test" for the administrative exemption is analyzed using former 29 CFR 541.205 (now 541.201-203) in its entirety. [Because these regulations have been amended, it will be important to find the 2001 version of the federal rules. ]

It remains to be seen how the courts interpret the Supreme Court's guidance. But if the Court of Appeal's test had been affirmed, it would have severely curtailed the exemption.  We at least know that the Supreme Court disagreed with that approach.

The opinion is Harris v. Superior Court (Liberty Mut. Ins. Co.) and the opinion is here.