FLSA Exemptions and the Burden of Proof in a Federal Unpaid Overtime Case in Georgia

A recent unpaid overtime ruling, while not occurring here in Georgia, is potentially significant to workers and employers here who find themselves embroiled in a dispute regarding the applicability of an exemption to the overtime pay requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The recent case involved the proper burden of proof for proving an overtime exemption. Things like that may sound minute to a layperson, but issues like burdens of proof can swing a success to a defeat or vice versa. Given all the legal details essential to presenting and winning an unpaid overtime case, as well as the high stakes involved, it is worth your while to seek out an experienced Atlanta unpaid overtime lawyer to represent you.

The employees were sales representatives working for a food products distributor. The representatives sued the employer for unpaid overtime in violation of the FLSA. The employer countered by asserting that the representatives fell within the “outside sales” exemption, which meant that the employer had no legal obligation to pay overtime compensation.

The workers went to trial in a Maryland federal court and won. The court concluded that the law required the employer to prove the application of the exemption by “clear and convincing evidence,” and that the distributor did not clear that hurdle.

The distributor appealed but lost. The appellate panel noted that, in 1993, the appeals court (which is the 4th Circuit, whose rulings control federal cases in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the Carolinas) issued a ruling declaring that, when an employer asserts an FLSA exemption argument as part of its defense, the employer bears the burden of proving that exemption and must do so by “clear and convincing evidence.”

Disagreement Among the Federal Appeals Courts

As noted above, this case doesn’t directly impact workers and employers engaging in FLSA litigation in federal court in Georgia. The 11th Circuit (whose rulings directly control federal cases here in Georgia as well as Florida and Alabama) has not issued a ruling declaring what an employer’s burden of proof should be.

For employers litigating FLSA exemption cases in this circuit, the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case of Encino Motorcars v. Navarro may be helpful. In that matter, the majority opinion rejected the notion that courts should construe all FLSA overtime exemptions narrowly. In the past, courts had used that narrow construction standard as the basis for imposing the heightened burden of “clear and convincing evidence” on employers arguing for the application of an exemption.

The federal courts of appeals are split about what burden of proof employers asserting exemptions should bear. While the 4th Circuit imposes the “clear and convincing evidence” standard on employers, the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 10th Circuit courts have all issued opinions stating that the correct standard is “preponderance of the evidence.” This split may heighten the odds that the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually issue a ruling stating what the correct standard is.

Why Burden of Proof Standards Matter So Much

The difference between these two standards is significant. A party bound by the “preponderance” standard must only prove that its argument is more likely correct than not. In numerical terms, you can think of this as requiring proof that establishes a position by at least one iota more than 50-50. “Clear and convincing,” on the other hand, requires a party to “present evidence that leaves you with a firm belief or conviction that it is highly probable that the factual contentions of the claim or defense are true.” Notice the modifiers there, like “firm” and “highly.” These show that your proof must establish your position by substantially more than just one iota above 50-50.

Unpaid overtime cases can be complicated, nuanced, and highly technical. They also can be disputes with massive consequences (for both the employer and the employee.) Given those realities, getting knowledgeable legal advice is crucial. For answers upon which you can confidently rely, talk to the experienced Atlanta wage and hour attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our team has an in-depth understanding of the FLSA and its regulations and can provide you with the information and advice you need. Contact us through this website or at 404-873-8048 to schedule a consultation.

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