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Ninth Circuit Holds Certain Social Workers Entitled to Overtime Compensation

Posted: September 12, 2011 Filed under: Case Law, Employment Law, Law-Related News

In an opinion with potentially far reaching effects, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined in Solis v. State of Washington, Department of Social & Health Services that a group of Washington social workers working in the field of dependency/child in need of care (child abuse and neglect) are not exempt from the overtime compensation requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq. (FLSA). The their responsibilities of the social workers included investigating child abuse and neglect, developing and recommending appropriate treatment plans to courts, evaluating child and family progress in meeting treatment plans, making placement decisions, and recommending whether parental
rights should be terminated.

The Ninth Circuit reversed a lower court’s order granting summary judgment to the Washington agency that employed the social workers, which had relied in large part on a Pennsylvania federal court decision holding truancy prevention case managers, who were required to have a bachelor’s degree in social work, human services, or a related field, plus three years of work experience, came within the “learned professional” exemption. The Ninth Circuit stated:

To avail itself of the “learned professional” exemption, an employer must show that a position requires advanced knowledge customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction. Because the social worker positions at issue here require only a degree in one of several diverse academic disciplines or sufficient coursework in any of those disciplines, we conclude that DSHS has not met its burden of showing that its social worker positions “plainly and unmistakably” meet the regulatory requirement.

The court found the class of Washington social workers different from a group deemed exempt by the Department of Labor because the other group required more specialized education and specified work experience. Because “FSLA exemptions are construed narrowly against employers and “are to be withheld except as to persons plainly and unmistakably within their terms and spirit,” the Ninth Circuit found the broad range of degrees accepted by the Washington agency failed to satisfy the learned professional exemption from overtime requirements. The court cited decisions from a number of other courts in support of its holding, including a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Dybach v. State of Florida Department of Corrections, 942 F.2d 1562 (11th Cir. 1991), where the 11th Circuit “held that probation officers, who were required to have a bachelor’s degree in any field, including “nuclear physics” or “basketweaving,” id. at 1565-66, did not qualify for the “learned professional” exemption despite a requirement of one year of prior experience in law enforcement or corrections.”

Admitted: Florida, Kansas, New Mexico (inactive)