Confusion continues to reign throughout the federal district courts as to the scope of the administrative exemption as set forth in the regulations at 29 C.F.R. §§ 541.200-202. In a decision highlighting this lack of clarity, Federal District Judge Kevin Castel of the Southern District of New York recently denied cross-motions for summary judgment as to the applicability of the exemption to “research associates” for Gerson Lehrman Group, a company devoted to assisting clients to “find and engage experts in various industries and disciplines.” Cohen v. Gerson Lehrman Group, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 104551 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 15, 2011).
The parties could agree only that Plaintiffs’ duties as Research Associates related to “interview[ing] clients and match[ing] them with appropriate experts, and perform[ing] research tasks delegated by more senior employees.” Observing that the parties submitted a record “laden with factual disputes,” the Court ruled that while certain disputes were “little more than disagreements about seemingly irrelevant jargon” others were “integral toward determining the application of the administrative exemption.” The Court identified numerous factual disputes relating to the primary duties of Research Associates, and whether they exercised independent judgment and discretion in performing such duties, which in the Court’s view rendered it impossible to determine on summary judgment whether they met the test for the administrative exemption. In short, the Court could not determine whether the duties were exempt duties related to the “general business” of Gerson Lehrman and its clients (and thus potentially eligible for exemption) or were “production” work as defined in Davis v. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., 587 F.3d 529 (2d Cir. 2009). Nor could the Court determine whether the requisite discretion and independent judgment was present.
Cohen, like last year’s sister court decision in Henderson v. Transp. Group, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66109 (S.D.N.Y. July 1, 2010), highlights the uncertainty in applying the administrative exemption to junior white collar professionals in numerous industries. While these employees have college degrees, possess substantial skills, and often are assigned important client responsibilities, the plaintiffs’ bar asserts that they are simply “producing” the white collar employer’s product, and that, as junior employees, they cannot possibly be involved in decision-making with respect to those clients requiring discretion and independent judgment. Unless and until the Supreme Court provides clarity regarding the scope of the exemption (by addressing one of the Circuit splits developing in particular industries), employers must continue to apply the exemption cautiously after review with counsel and with a full understanding of potential liabilities.