Lieutenants in civil service county not considered exempt employees for FLSA purposes says U.S. 5th Circuit

 

Miller v Travis County, 19-50360, (US 5th Cir – March 26, 2020)

This is a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)/overtime case where the U.S. 5th Circuit held the County failed to establish the lieutenants in the Sheriff’s office were exempt employees.

In the Travis County Sheriff’s department, the Sheriff is at the top. In descending order are the Chief Deputy, majors, captains, lieutenants, sergeants, detectives, and deputies.  The County falls under the civil service statute for law enforcement.  The lieutenants’ main responsibility is to manage the operation of units of sergeants and deputies.  The lieutenants participate in employment decisions regarding their coworkers, starting with hiring and promotion.  The lieutenants also participate in discipline and termination decisions. Believing they were entitled to overtime pay, the lieutenants sued Travis County and a jury issued an award in their favor. The County appealed.

The employer bears the burden of proving an employee is exempt from overtime pay under the FLSA. To qualify as an executive exemption, the employee must have the authority to hire or fire other employees or whose suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status of other employees are given particular weight. The lieutenants could not hire/fire, so the jury only decided whether their opinions have particular weight in the decision. However, the hiring and promotional boards (made up of 6 officers)  did not provide the lieutenants any special influence. They sometimes sat on the boards, but, at least for hiring boards, they did so along with their subordinates. Thus, at most, a lieutenant’s recommendation accounted for one-sixth of the final tally.  The jury was properly instructed on the purpose of the civil service system, which includes a design to prevent any one viewpoint from having disproportionate influence.  As a result, the jury could have found for the County or for the lieutenants, given the facts. The jury found for the lieutenants. The same is true for the lieutenants’ role in discipline and termination. “There was evidence on both sides, and the jury picked a winner. Our task is not to determine whether the verdict was correct—only whether there was a sufficient basis to render it… There was.”  Since the review is under an abuse of discretion the County failed to establish an abuse of discretion.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Smith, Ho, and Oldham.  Opinion by Judge Smith. Attorneys for the Appellant are Amy Stoeckl Ybarra, Leslie Wood Dippel, and Laurie R. Eiserloh. Attorneys for Appellee are Jacob Sheick and Meredith B. Parenti.