On January 5, 2018, the United States Department of Labor announced that, going forward, it would utilize the “primary beneficiary” test for determining whether interns are employees under the FLSA, consistent with recent rulings from appellate courts. Its updated Fact Sheet #71, a copy of which is linked here, explains the test, which examines “the ‘economic reality’ of the intern-employer relationship to determine which party is the ‘primary beneficiary of the relationship.” Fact Sheet #71 outlines 7 factors that courts should apply on a fact specific basis in making this determination, with no single factor being dispositive:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

This test replaces the older 6 factor test contained in Fact Sheet #71, which some courts had rejected as too rigid. While this guidance from the DOL is persuasive, rather than binding, authority, it should be noted that a version of the “primary beneficiary” test was already being applied by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, at least in the context of whether trainees constitute employees. The adoption of this test by the DOL provides additional support for the application of it by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and District Court for the District of South Carolina.

Last week, in the case of EEOC v. Consul Energy, Inc., the Fourth Circuit affirmed a $586,860 judgment for a coal miner who claimed that his employer (Consul Energy) failed to accommodate his religious beliefs and constructively discharged him when it forced him to use a biometric hand scanner to monitor work hours. The employee alleged that the use of the hand-scanning system would cause him to be marked with the Mark of the Beast, which, according to his understanding of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, would associate him with the Antichrist and allow the Antichrist to manipulate him. The biometric hand scanner required employees to scan their hand, and the shape of the hand was linked to the employee’s unique employee number. It did not detect or place a mark on the hand. The employer was unwilling to allow the employee to check in and out by other means, even though two other employees were allowed to check in by entering their employee numbers on a keypad because they had hand injuries. The employee retired under protest. At trial, the jury returned a verdict of $150,000 in compensatory damages, and the court subsequently awarded $436,860 in front and back pay and lost benefits.

On appeal, the employer primarily argued that it did not violate Title VII’s reasonable accommodation requirement because there was no conflict between the employee’s bona fide religious beliefs and the requirement that the employee use the hand scanner system. In essence, the employer’s argument was that the employee misunderstood the Book of Revelation. It argued that the Mark of the Beast is a physical mark that would be placed upon the right hand. According to the employer, there could be no conflict because the scanner system did not give a physical mark on his hand, and, moreover, it was allowing the employee to scan his left hand rather than his right hand. The employer even presented evidence that the employee’s pastor disagreed the employee’s view of a connection between the scanner and the Mark of the Beast.

The Fourth Circuit held that the employee’s argument “is beside the point” because it is not the employer’s place “to question the correctness or even the plausibility of [the employee’s] religious understandings.” All that matters is that the employee sincerely holds the beliefs, and that such beliefs conflict with an employment requirement.

The employer also argued there was no adverse employment action because the employee voluntarily quit. The Fourth Circuit, following recent Supreme Court cases, made it clear that an employee asserting a constructive discharge claim does not need to show “deliberateness” or “intent”- i.e., that the employer denied the accommodation to provoke the employee’s retirement. Rather, the question is whether the employer’s discriminatory conduct subjected the employee to circumstances that were so intolerable that a reasonable person would quit. The Fourth Circuit found substantial evidence that the employee was in an intolerable position by the employer’s refusal to accommodate the employee by requiring him to use a scanner system that he believed would render him a follower of the Antichrist.

This case is an excellent reminder that sincere religious beliefs do not have to identify with the beliefs of a particular sect, even where the employee appears to be a member of the sect. This case is also a reminder that the failure to appreciate the distinction between sincere religious beliefs and what are often viewed as legitimate religious beliefs can be a costly misunderstanding.

In an earlier post, we discussed President Trump’s second Executive Order (E.O.) aimed at restricting entry into the United States of certain foreign nationals. In a 10-3 decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked President Trump’s E.O. stating that it “drips with intolerance, animus, and discrimination.” Similarly, the Hawaii decision, which ruled against the E.O., was appealed to the Ninth Circuit; that court has not yet made a ruling.

Next stop, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS). Although SCOTUS has not granted review of the E.O., the Justice Department has requested the Court for an urgent review. However, before SCOTUS rules on the substantive issues surrounding the E.O., the Court must first grant cert, i.e., at least four of the nine Justices must agree to review the matter. SCOTUS will review the merits of the case only if cert is granted.

Notwithstanding the passionate debate surrounding the E.O., the key legal issue here is the scope of the President’s authority, specifically in the arena of immigration and national security. Stemming from this are a plethora of other issues for the Justices to evaluate, including (1) whether President Trump’s campaign statements may be used as evidence; (2) whether the E.O. violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment; and (3) determining what is the appropriate precedential standard for this case.

SCOTUS review of an executive order is not unprecedented. The first of two notable examples: the 1952 case Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, SCOTUS reviewed President Truman’s executive order, and held that the President lacked the authority to seize private steel mills during the Korean War. Second, in the 1981 case Dames & Moore v. Regan, the court ruled in favor of President Reagan’s executive orders, providing deferential review given the national security context of the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Given the confusion surrounding the E.O., litigation in multiple jurisdictions, and the political importance of the matter, SCOTUS is likely to grant review, establishing the appropriate standard and providing clarity nationwide. Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, P.A.’s immigration team will provide further updates.

As this blog previously covered here and here, the United States Department of Labor under President Obama cracked down on misclassification of workers as independent contractors and broadly interpreted who was considered a “joint employer.” Today, new U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced that the DOL would withdraw its previously-issued guidance from 2015 and 2016 on these topics. You can find the announcement here.

This should be welcome news for most companies as the previous guidance took an expansive view of when a worker is considered an “employee” (as opposed to an independent contractor) and when a company is considered an “employer” of a particular worker (particularly in the context of temporary hires and workers employed through staffing agencies). Interestingly, as you can see here, the DOL has removed the previous guidance from its website altogether.

However, it is important to note that the actual significance of this announcement is difficult to predict and remains to be seen. First, as the announcement makes clear, this is not really a change in the law per se because the guidance was only the DOL’s interpretation of the law. But, this announcement does signal that the DOL under Secretary Acosta will be taking a different approach to the concepts of joint employment and independent contractor classification. Second, it is unclear how this announcement affects the fact sheets and other DOL “guidance” on its website.

As to the issue of classifying a worker as an employee or an independent contractor, the FLSA (and the DOL’s interpretation of it) is only one of many things to consider. For instance, the Internal Revenue Service and the South Carolina courts have their own interpretation of what constitutes an “independent contractor,” and employers would be wise to tread carefully when making classification decisions as the penalties for misclassification can be steep.

As to the joint employment issue, the Fourth Circuit (which includes South Carolina) has developed its own test to determine when an entity is a joint employer for purposes of Title VII liability. The Fourth Circuit’s test is outlined in detail in this blog post and the announcement from the DOL will not impact this decision.