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Wage & Hour Law Update

California Court of Appeal Upholds Applicability of State Commission Exemption to Sales Consultant

As we have previously discussed, the FLSA contains an exemption for commissioned employees in the retail or service industry who meet certain parameters: colloquially referred to as the “7(i)” exemption. California has a similar exemption which the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District recently applied to a sales consultant, holding that Defendant’s payments qualified as “commissions.” Areso v. Carmax, Inc., 195 Cal. App. 4th 996 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2011). 

Plaintiff Areso was engaged in selling defendant’s “used vehicles, warranty plans, used vehicle appraisals and vehicle accessories,” and received payments based on the products and services she sold. At issue were two different versions of Carmaxs sales consultant pay plan for California employees.  Under both, plaintiff was eligible to receive a fixed amount per sale of a car, and then a percentage of the purchase price of accessories sold. The trial court ruled both of these “per vehicle” pay plans were “a performance-based incentive system and thus, fairly understood to be a commission structure under Labor Code § 204.1.” Id. at 1000.

Areso appealed. The Court of Appeal began its analysis by noting that Wage Order 7-2001 exempts from California Labor Code overtime requirements “any employee whose earnings exceed one and one-half times the minimum wage if more than half of that employee’s compensation represents commissions.” Id. at 1002-3. This exemption mirrors 7(i), but without the requirement that the employee be in a “retail or service” industry. The court observed that the Cal. Labor Code also contains a definition of commission wages, namely “compensation paid to any person for services rendered in the sale of such employer’s property or services and based proportionately upon the amount or value thereof.” Id. citing Labor Code § 204.1 (emphasis in original). 

The Court then analyzed previous California appellate authority addressing other types of incentive compensation, such as a percentage of the hourly rate charged to a customer, and “point” systems based on the items sold, but not tied to the price of those items. The Court observed that “none of the[se] cases interpreting § 204.1 has involved the compensation system which, like Carmax’s, compensate sales people with a uniform payment for each item or service sold and as a result, no cases construed the word ‘amount’ in the statute. This is an issue of first impression, and new facts require new law.” Id. at 1007. Rejecting plaintiff’s contention that in order to be “proportionate”, the percentage of the items sold payable to the commission employee must fluctuate, the Court observed that “paying sales people a uniform fee for each vehicle is proportionate—a one-to-one proportion. The compensation will rise and fall in direct proportion to the number of vehicles sold.” Id. at 1008. 

The Carmax decision represents a welcome victory for California employers seeking to apply this overtime exemption. Observes Jackson Lewis Partner JoAnna Brooks, who regularly handles wage and hour litigation in California, “The decision is surprising because it rejects the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement’s traditional guidance that a commission must be a percentage of the actual sales price. Other forms of fixed incentives are typically deemed bonuses or piece rates. Thus, it may be lawful to pay a fixed commission, but calculating a fixed payment based on anticipated “profit” after deducting expenses, such as overhead costs, may still be deemed a bonus. The consequences are significant, because it can result in mis-classification of an inside sales worker.”

Despite this decision, California wage and hour laws remain full of pitfalls for employers. Employers should proceed with caution. As Brooks notes, “Even employers who meet California’s commission exemption must take additional steps to ensure they have a properly drafted commission plan explaining when commissions are earned, the applicable rates paid, calculation of overtime and the impact of separation from employment.” 

California employers must continue to stay in the vanguard of wage and hour compliance to avoid costly litigation.