As we frequently discuss in this space, application of the FLSA’s “learned” professional exemption is a frequent topic for litigation, including within the 9th Circuit. These disputes emanate not only from jobs not historically recognized by the DOL as learned professions, but even from within those areas, as exemplified by a new District Court decision in California. Rieve v. Coventry Health Care, Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58603 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 25, 2012).

Plaintiffs in Rieve held the position of Case Manager for Defendants’ business, which focused on assisting employers and insurers with reducing workers compensation related costs. The Case Manager position required candidates “to be a state-licensed RN and to have three or more years of case management experience” but did not entail duties involving “direct patient care.” Rejecting Plaintiffs’ claim that they were not learned professionals under the FLSA, the court observed that the Case Manager’s “role in the hierarchy of Defendants’ business is quite closely aligned with the position occupied by a registered nurse, such that Plaintiff should be afforded the same treatment under the law as registered nurses engaged in the practice of nursing.” Thus, Plaintiffs were exempt learned professionals under the FLSA. 

The court however then conducted a separate analysis under state law, reaching a different conclusion based on peculiarities of California law.

The technical nature of the exemption inquiry, coupled with the relative paucity of appellate authority (despite the now widespread nature of FLSA claims) provides fertile ground for litigation. A challenge may come from a profession not historically recognized as “learned,” from a Registered Nurse as in Rieve, or even from a budding lawyer. A review of wage practices and the legality of such under the FLSA and applicable state laws, and concomitant discussion of risk management strategies, is the only mechanism—apart from luck—for limiting liability.