In recent weeks, we have discussed challenges to FLSA exempt status brought by employees many might assume to be properly exempt, such as a Director for the Red Cross. In another recent rejection of a claim of this type brought by the the aggressive plaintiffs’ bar, a federal court in Pennsylvania has ruled, following a bench trial, that the Supervisor of the Toxicology Laboratory for Wilkes-Barre Hospital properly was classified as an exempt "learned" professional. Hockenbury v. Wilkes-Barre Hosp. Co., LLC, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141001 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 8, 2011).
Judge Edwin M. Kosik found that Plaintiff Hockenbury, who supervised fifteen technologists in the lab, possessed the requisite “educational degree and expertise in toxicology” to qualify as a learned professional under 29 C.F.R. § 541.301 (e)(1). The Court also concluded that Plaintiff was paid on a salary basis because he conceded that “he received in every single pay period the minimum of eighty hours pay, which was never reduced based on the number of hours he worked.”
Hockenbury represents another employer victory in a single FLSA plaintiff’s challenge to his or her exempt status. However, such scattered district court cases do little to alleviate the continued threat of FLSA litigation, and nothing to obviate the need for position-specific analysis of FLSA classification by all employers. In general, to qualify for the “learned” professional exemption, in addition to being paid on a salaried or fee basis, the employee must have a specific job-related advanced degree that is necessary for the performance of the job. State law also must be reviewed as some states, such as California, impose higher standards for exemption.