This post was also written by Robert M. Jaworski.
The United States Department of Labor (“DOL”), Wage and Hour Division, recently published an Administrator’s Interpretation that takes the position that mortgage loan officers with certain “typical” job duties are not subject to the administrative employee exemption of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The DOL reasoned that mortgage loan officers’ primary duties are to make sales, and these are not administrative functions as defined by federal regulations. As a result, mortgage loan officers are not exempt from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime compensation rules under the administrative employee exemption. The DOL based its new interpretation on the statutory and regulatory framework, as well as on a thorough review and analysis of recent case law. With this determination, the DOL reverses its previously held position and explicitly withdraws Opinion Letters from February 2001 and September 2006, which stated that mortgage loan officers could be considered exempt administrative employees.
The administrative exemption applies to employees whose job duties and qualifications meet all of the following tests: (1) the employee is compensated on a salary or fee basis as defined in the regulations at a rate of not less than $455 per week; (2) the employee’s primary duty is the performance of office or non-manual work directly related to the management or general business operations of the employer or the employer’s customers; and (3) the employee’s primary duty includes the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance.
The DOL’s interpretation focuses on the second test. The DOL noted that a mortgage loan officer’s typical duties include contacting and gathering financial information from customers, entering data into computer programs to determine which loan products may be offered to a customer, assessing the loan products identified, and trying to match the customer’s needs with one of the company’s products. Those duties, combined with other factors, led the DOL to conclude that mortgage loan officers’ primary duty is to make sales, rather than administrative functions.
In reaching its conclusion, the DOL also relied on the following factors:
- In lawsuits brought by mortgage loan officers, mortgage companies have typically conceded that the officers’ primary duty is sales.
- Mortgage loan officers are usually paid commissions based on sales, and their performance is evaluated based on sales volume.
- The DOL could not find any reported case holding that a mortgage loan officer, whether working inside or outside, had a primary duty other than sales.
- A primary duty to make sales is not directly related to the management or general business operations of an employer or an employer’s customers, a necessary part of meeting the administrative exemption.
Although Wage and Hour Administrator Interpretations do not have the force of law, they are given considerable weight by the courts. This new interpretation, therefore, will significantly affect financial institutions and other related organizations that currently consider their mortgage loan officers to be exempt from overtime pay. Such employers should take immediate steps to address this new interpretation, such as by engaging outside counsel to audit current practices and to otherwise ensure full compliance with all parts of the FLSA. And given that the DOL’s new approach does not limit application of other FLSA exemptions to mortgage loan officers, employers should also consider whether other exemptions may apply. For example, mortgage loan officers may qualify as exempt employees pursuant to the FLSA’s exemption for outside sales staff, i.e., employees who are primarily responsible for sales or for obtaining contracts for services, and who are customarily and regularly engaged away from their employer’s place of business in performing such duties. Counsel familiar with FLSA issues can provide valuable assistance in this process. It may also be necessary to reorganize compensation plans or reclassify employees to ensure compliance.
Whatever approach is chosen, in light of the real potential for class action lawsuits seeking double damages and attorneys’ fees on behalf of all mortgage loan officers who an employer has employed going back as far as three years, this Administrator’s Interpretation cannot be safely ignored.