This past July the Spokane Valley Fire Department (SVFD) filed an unusual lawsuit against the union that represents Spokane Valley firefighters (IAFF Local 3701). SVFD wanted the court to issue a “declaratory judgement” that SVFD battalion chiefs and fire marshals were exempt from receiving FLSA overtime. A declaratory judgement is when a court is asked to issue a formal opinion to resolve a possible legal dispute. Here is more on that original story. . .
Now, here is the update.
After SVFD filed the initial suit attorneys representing IAFF local 3701 responded with a motion to dismiss. Local 3701’s motion to dismiss was primarily based on the following legal theories:
- First, employers cannot sue employees for FLSA violations. In short, the FLSA was crafted to protect workers and employers have no legal standing to sue employees under the FLSA.
- Second, there was no legal controversy between the local union and the fire department. The two parties were involved in contract negotiations and courts do not have jurisdiction to issue any judgement until there is an “actual controversy” between the two parties.
On October 12, the U.S. Eastern District Court of Washington state denied local 3701’s motion to dismiss the original suit. However, the court did not necessary rule in favor of SVFD either. Instead the court delayed further action pending SVFD and local 3701 obtaining an official opinion from the Department of Labor (DOL) on whether SVFD battalion chiefs and fire marshals are overtime exempt under the FLSA.
That leads us to the next question. . . What is an official DOL opinion?
According to the DOL “an opinion letter is an official, written opinion by the Wage and Hour Division of how a particular law applies in specific circumstances presented by an employer, employee or other entity requesting the opinion.” Opinion letters were common practice for more than 70 years until the DOL ended the practice in 2010. However, the DOL resumed the practice in June of this past year. While opinion letters can be useful tools for determining DOL intent; the devil often lies in the details. . .
Who will draft the letter?
What happens if the parties cannot agree on facts within the letter?
What happens when one or both parties do not agree with the DOL’s opinion?
We knew this case would be interesting from the outset. We will certainly be following these developments and will keep you posted.
For more information on opinion letters from the DOL website:
Here are copies of: