From JDSupra, Keith Anderson and Anne Yuengert discuss a recent case in which a court disregarded a United States Department of Labor (DOL) opinion letter because the regulation was unambiguous and the opinion letter was not persuasive. Keith and Anne write:
The court, however, did not see this change by the DOL as cause to reverse its previous rulings. The judge detailed that deference to agency interpretation of a regulation is appropriate only when the regulation is “genuinely ambiguous after the application of standard tools of interpretation, and even then, only if the agency’s interpretation is ‘authoritative, expertise-based, fair, or considered judgment.’” The court then reiterated its previous reasoning that the regulation in question was unambiguous so it was never necessary to reach the DOL’s interpretation.
Similarly, the court was not swayed by the defendants’ argument that a new opinion letter received from the Arkansas Department of Labor (ADOL) should change the court’s mind. ADOL issued a letter in September 2019 setting forth that the state agency would follow the DOL’s interpretation on the issue. Defendants argued that even if the court would not give deference to the federal DOL’s updated interpretation under the federal standard for deference to agency interpretations, it should give deference to the state agency’s interpretation under the state standard for deference. The court carefully scrutinized the September 2019 ADOL letter and found that ADOL intended it not as an agency interpretation of the state regulations, but only to set out its enforcement policy to follow the DOL’s interpretations in an effort to provide consistency between the federal and state levels.
In the end, the court stuck to its previous ruling that sleeper berth time over eight hours must be compensated during shifts of 24 hours or longer – a position that would be inconsistent with the current DOL interpretation of the issue.
Takeaway: DOL Opinion Letters Are Important, but Not Absolute
The P.A.M. case is an interesting study in how federal courts’ treat DOL opinion letters, especially where there is a change in the middle of a case. Employers should pay attention to the DOL opinion letters for useful guidance in how the current department interprets thorny FLSA issues. However, employers should not assume a court will agree with the guidance. As this case clearly demonstrates, the letters will not serve as absolute authority as they are very fact-specific and do not carry the force of law.