Among the more frustrating nuances for employers in the wage and hour context is the potentially exempt status of registered nurses.  The Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet #17N explains that “registered nurses” working on a salary basis in an amount meeting the salary threshold “generally meet the duties requirements for the learned professional exemption.”  That is “generally” reassuring, yet a Westlaw search “generally” contains dozens of cases nationwide where an RN’s exempt status is successfully challenged.  

Though not a case directly involving nursing, the Fourth Circuit opinion in Williams v. Genex Services, LLC, 2015 WL 9259057 (4th Cir. Dec. 18, 2015) should be helpful to employers.  In Williams, a Field Medical Case Manager (“FMCM”) sued for unpaid overtime, challenging her employer’s decision to treat her as exempt under the learned professional exemption.  As an FMCM, Williams was responsible for assessment, planning, coordination, implementation and evaluation of injured/disabled individuals involved in the medical case management process.  She works as an intermediary between carriers, attorneys, medical care providers, employers and employees to ensure appropriate and cost-effective healthcare services and a medically rehabilitated individual who is ready to return to an optimal level of work and functioning.  

Though there is no direct patient care involved, under Maryland law the FMCM position requires the credential of being a registered nurse as well as a Workers’ Compensation Case Manager Certification from the Maryland Board of Nursing.  These credentials played a crucial role in the Fourth Circuit’s decision to affirm the lower court’s summary judgment for the employer.  The lower court relied on the credential considerably, holding that because Williams’ status as a registered nurse was a requirement, she performed work in a field of science that is customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction, a hallmark of exempt learned professionals.  Taking it a step further, the Fourth Circuit held that Williams regularly uses her skills, training, and knowledge as a registered nurse to perform her duties as an FMCM.  Despite the lack of direct patient care, the Fourth Circuit noted that Williams develops individual care plans by reviewing injured workers’ medical records and interviewing workers about their medical conditions and recovery.  

Also, though not meeting the $100,000 threshold for the highly paid exemption, the Court noted that Williams’ $80,000+ annual salary cast doubt over whether she was in the class of employees intended for FLSA protection, citing earlier opinions which held that the FLSA was meant to protect “low paid rank and file employees.”  

Though the Fourth Circuit did not come out and say all registered nurses are exempt (so long as they are performing work related to their certification), the opinion adds some much needed predictability for employers.  

Clarity and predictability should be a benefit to all in the wage and hour field, and is much needed with regard to nurses.  


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Today, we discuss the brand new Supreme Court opinion of Kasten v. Stain-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 2011 WL 977061 (U.S. March 22, 2011).  In Kasten, the Supreme Court held that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938′s (“FLSA”) anti-retaliation provision applies to oral complaints as well as written ones.

Kasten involved a factory worker for a plastics manufacturer.  The employer had a mechanism whereby the time clock for workers to punch in and out of work was located right at the worksite, precluding workers from getting credit for time donning and doffing their uniforms and protective gear.  Plaintiff Kasten filed a separate collection action for alleged FLSA violations for unpaid overtime based on this setup.  Moreover, Kasten complained verbally to his supervisors about the setup, stating that it denied he and other employees overtime because time spent donning and doffing work clothes took significant time each day.  He was terminated sometime after his alleged complaints.

Kasten lost his retaliation claim on summary judgment before the District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin because, according to the District Court, complaints regarding illegal working conditions under the FLSA only were subject to retaliation claims if they were in writing.  Indeed, the statutory language protects an employee who has “filed any complaint.”  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed.  In a 6-2 opinion, the Supreme Court reversed.  After engaging in a lengthy review of statutory construction, the Court ultimately concluded that “filing” a complaint can be achieved orally if a “reasonable, objective person would have understood the employee to have put the employer on notice that the employee is asserting statutory rights under the Act.”  Summary judgment was reversed and the case was remanded back to the trial court.

The potential ramifications of this decision is huge.  Retaliation is among the most difficult cases to defend in all of federal employment discrimination law.  This decision potentially provides a pseudo-shield to all covered employees under the FLSA who make verbal complaints about unpaid overtime or minimum wage violations, or even uncovered workers who merely complain that they should be covered.  As an attorney who predominantly represents employers, this concerns me a great deal.

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