The FLSA “learned” professional exemption requires an individual to perform work requiring advance knowledge in a field of science or learning, and that such knowledge customarily be acquired through prolonged academic instruction. Challenges to the applicability of this exemption often arise in the healthcare industry relating to positions outside the classically recognized professions, e.g., doctors and nurses. Rejecting one such challenge, Judge David Larimer  of the United States District Court for the Western District of New York recently ruled that a group of Primary Therapists “in the area of mental health counseling and therapy” for Defendant health system, all of whom were required to possess “a master’s degree in social work, mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, and/or creative arts therapy . . . [and also] secure and maintain state licensure,” properly qualified for the exemption. Levine v. Unity Health Sys., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29902 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 6, 2012).

Rejecting Plaintiffs’ claim that their “lack of authority to make diagnoses or dictate treatment plans took them outside “the realm of ‘learned professional,’” the Court observed that the “duties of PTs undisputedly . . . included direct patient contact and leadership of group therapy sessions.” Because in order to do this work the therapists were required to obtain the specific credentials identified (both the requisite degree and state licensure) the Court concluded that “the undisputed professional credentials that Unity demands of its [Therepists]” supported exempt status. In so ruling, the Court distinguished cases, such as Solis v. Washington, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 18668 (9th Cir. Sept. 9, 2011), where the employer was unable to establish that the combined educational, licensure and employer instruction requirements were “sufficiently specialized” to qualify for exempt status. 

As we have previously discussed, courts will reject application of the learned professional exemption when a plaintiff demonstrates that she or he uses knowledge in their work acquired other than by prolonged academic instruction in a specialized area. Where a plaintiff cannot make such a showing, the exemption may stand, provided the employee exercises some discretion and independent judgment, a further requirement. As always, state law discrepancies must be considered, such as the New York Labor Law’s absence of a salary basis requirement for the professional exemption.