Quantifying the necessary “discretion and independent judgment” required to qualify for the administrative exemption continues to divide courts, and the conclusion is often in the eye of the judicial beholder. This is especially so where discretionary authority must be measured without reference to monetary benchmarks or limits, such as those applicable to insurance adjusters or purchasing agents. See Roe-Midgett v. CC Servs., 512 F.3d 865 (7th Cir. 2008)(insurance adjusters with sufficient discretion to approve claims qualified for exemption); see also 29 CFR § 541.203(f)(regarding purchasing agents). With that said, USDOL regulations and district courts interpreting the exemption have identified certain duties (often varying by industry) which constitute the hallmark of such discretion. In a new decision, one federal judge in New York State rules that a Director of Emergency Services for the Red Cross met this test. Raffe v. Am. Nat’l Red Cross, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 137340 (N.D.N.Y Nov. 30, 2011).
Plaintiff Raffe challenged the applicability of the exemption via the common technique of citing the repeatability of certain processes integral to his job, despite admitting “to having significant budgetary and fiscal responsibilities, including reallocation of emergency services funds, submitting grant applications, handling procurement, overseeing equipment and inventory, and authorizing purchases” (id. at * 37) and further admitting to “developing and evaluating the [Red Cross] Chapter’s Continuity of Operations Plan.” Id. at * 37-8. Plaintiff argued that his consultation with (and obtaining the approval of) the Chapter’s Executive Director or Board prior to the implementation of major decisions undercut his discretion and independent judgment. Rejecting this argument, the Court rightly observed that “[t]he fact that Raffe did not have sole or final authority to make decisions does not disqualify him from satisfying the conditions necessary for the administrative exemption. Id. at * 38 citing 29 C.F.R. § 541.202(c). Because Raffe also met the other prongs of the administrative exemption test (including being paid on a salary basis), he qualified for exemption from minimum wage and overtime.
Raffe is a positive result for employers in New York and the other jurisdictions within the Second Circuit, but also highlights the reality that director-level employees such as Raffe can mount expensive legal challenges to their exempt classification. The potential direct and indirect costs of such challenges must be factored into employers’ classification decisions and risk management plans. A full understanding of the current judicial view of the scope of exemptions within each region in which each organization operates is vital to fully understand all potential risks.