Recently, a federal judge in Minnesota analyzed whether the confounding administrative exemption applies to investigators employed by a “full-service investigative firm specializing in insurance defense investigations.” Ahle v. Veracity Research Co., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88250 (D. Minn. Aug. 25, 2010). In an opinion which addressed numerous other issues in the litigation, including rejecting the applicability of two other FLSA exemptions to the investigators (outside sales and motor carrier), Judge Ann Montgomery concluded that, while the investigators did perform work relating to the general business operations of Veracity and its customers (meeting the first prong of the administrative exemption test), they did not exercise sufficient discretion and independent judgment in performing that work, and thus could not qualify for the exemption.
Relying on the Seventh Circuit’s analysis in Roe-Midgett v. CC Services, Inc., 512 F.3d 865 (7th Cir. 2008), Judge Montgomery observed that even though the plaintiff investigators “produced” Veracity’s product (the investigations themselves), potentially making them “production” workers as opposed to administrative workers, the administrative/production dichotomy was of little use in analyzing a service business such as defendant’s, and, more importantly:
the core business function of Veracity’s clients is not to produce investigations. For example, Veracity’s insurance company clients are in the business of writing and selling insurance policies. The duty of conducting claims investigations is merely ancillary to producing and selling insurance policies, and thus falls on the administrative side of the "administrative-production dichotomy”
Ahle, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88250 at * 11 citing Roe-Midgett, 512 F.3d at 872.
Judge Montgomery then turned to the final prong of the analysis: whether the investigators exercised discretion and independent judgment under the Department of Labor regulation 29 C.F.R. § 541.202. Analyzing Veracity’s investigators in light of previous FLSA decisions concerning insurance industry investigations, the Court ruled that no material issue of fact existed as to the presence of discretion and independent judgment because, “(1) Veracity’s written guidelines explain in great detail how claims investigators should conduct an investigation, (2) the claims investigators are required to obtain all the facts regardless of their impact, and (3) the claims investigators do not include their own opinions, conclusions, or recommendations regarding the decision whether to pay or deny the claim.” This absence of independent analysis rendered the investigators employees who simply made “choices among established techniques, procedures or specific standards described in manuals or other sources." Thus, they could not qualify for the administrative exemption.
The administrative exemption is a persistent source of confusion, and litigation. Employers must apply its multiple-pronged exemption test with care and ensure exercise of sufficient discretion and independent judgment as to matters of significance.