Court of Appeal: Rare Opinion on Inside Sales Exemption

Tyrone Muldrow and a class of recruiters sued their employer, Surrex Solutions Corporation,  for unpaid overtime, meals and breaks.  The trial court held that the employees were exempt undre the "inside sales exemption" and that the company had adequately provided meals and breaks.  The Supreme Court issued a "grant and hold" order pending the decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004, 1037.

On remand after Brinker, the Court of Appeal reaffirmed its earlier decision.  It's blogworthy because of the discussion of the "inside sales exemption" under the wage order .

The exemption is contained in both wage order 4 and wage order 7.  The court did not address which wage order applies, but quoted from wage order 7:
California Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) Wage Order No. 7-2001 exempts from this statutory overtime compensation requirement "any employee whose earnings exceed one and one-half (1 1/2) times the minimum wage if more than half of that employee's compensation represents commissions." (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11070, subd. (3)(D).)

Under federal law, this is known as the "inside sales" or "7(i)" exemption.

For the above exemption to apply, the employees had to be "selling" a product or service. 

Appellants' primary job duty was to recruit "candidates" for employer "clients." Surrex's clients would place "job orders" with Surrex and appellants would search for potential candidates to fill the job orders. Appellants would use various resources to find candidates, including an internal database that Surrex maintained and various "on-line job boards."
The court decided that these recruiters were "selling" the recruiting services, and that the other activities they engaged in were part of the sales process.

The court then decided that the compensation the recruiters received were "commissions" because they were sufficiently related to the sales price - the revenue the business received for placements:

the sole argument that appellants offer to support their contention that the term "commissions" in the commissioned employees exemption (Cal. Code. Regs., tit. 8, § 11070, subd. (3)(D)) should be construed as excluding commission systems such as Surrex's, is that such a formula is "too complex." Appellants' contention that the Surrex's commission system is "too complex" is neither factually accurate nor legally relevant. The formula was clearly stated in the employees' employment agreements and, in most cases, could be calculated simply by knowing the candidate's "bill rate" and "pay rate" (both of which the consulting service managers, themselves, negotiated).15 In any event, appellants fail to cite any authority for the proposition that complexity is, or should be, a factor in determining whether a compensation scheme constitutes a commission under relevant California law.
The court also decided that the commission plan was "bona fide" because the commissions regularly exceeded draw.

So, the court decided that the trial court was correct because the inside sales exemption applies.

There are a couple of things the court did not decide that might have affected the outcome. First, the court did not appear to actually decide if Wage Order 4 or 7 is the correct one. The court quoted from Wage Order 7, which applies to all employees working in the "mercantile" industry.   The definition of "mercantile" applies to the sale of goods, not recruiting agencies. From the Wage Order: "'Mercantile Industry' means any industry, business, or establishment operated for the purpose of purchasing, selling, or distributing goods or commodities at wholesale or retail; or for the purpose of renting goods or commodities."

Rather, Wage Order 4 applies to occupations such as office workers, if an industry order does not apply.

The applicable Wage Order actually does not affect the exemption under California law because that exemption is contained in both Wage Order 4 and 7. (The Court should have cited the correct one, though).   The issue, though, is that the federal "7(i)" exemption applies only to "retail" establishments. In fact, the applicable Department of Labor regulations specifically exclude employment agencies from the definition of a retail establishment. See regulation here.  I can't say for certain that Surrex is not a "retail" establishment under federal law, but someone probably should take a look at that issue if he/she hasn't already

This is one of the few instances in which California law is less generous than federal law. Although an employee may be exempt under California law, if an employee is not "exempt" under federal law, then federal law will require overtime for work performed over 40 hours in a work week. I may have missed something, but the court's opinion does not seem to address federal law, or the wage order issue. Yet, the court does acknowledge the existence of the 7(i) exemption at footnote 14 of the opinion. Annnyyyway, I may be nuts, or someone has some splaining to do, or both! The message to our dear readers remains:   Please do not apply the inside sales exemption unless you consider both state and federal law.
 The case is Muldrow v. Surrex Solutions Corp. and the opinion is here.