CA Fire Protection District Settles FLSA Overtime Lawsuit with Two Former Battalion Chiefs

The Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District has settled a lawsuit filed earlier this year by two former fire department battalion chiefs. The settlement, which was approved by U.S. District Court Judge, Janis L. Sammartino on January 9, 2023, requires the district to pay a total of $99,000 to settle the former battalion chiefs’ overtime lawsuit. The two battalion chiefs named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit will each receive between $34,000 and $39,000 in unpaid overtime and liquidated damages, while their attorneys will receive around $25,500 in attorney’s fees.

Whether senior level fire officers, like the battalion chiefs named in this lawsuit, can be properly classified as overtime exempt under the FLSA’s “white-collar” overtime exemptions continues to be a hot-button issue in the fire service. In order to correctly classify any employee as an overtime exempt “white-collar” employee, Department of Labor (DOL) regulations require that the employer pass two critical tests, related to the exempt employee. The two tests are referred to as the “salary test” and the “duties test.”

Generally speaking, satisfying the FLSA and DOL salary requirements, also referred to as the salary test, for overtime exempt “white-collar” employees is a relatively simple and straight-forward task. The employee must be paid on a salary basis and that salary must be at least $684 per week. The salary test is typically not the biggest challenge when fire department or municipal employers are seeking to classify senior level fire officers as overtime exempt.

The second test that an employer must pass in order to classify any employee as an overtime exempt “white-collar” employee is related to the employee’s job duties, or as the DOL refers to this, the exempt employee’s primary duty. This is typically the biggest obstacle for fire departments that want to classify fire officers as overtime exempt “white-collar” employees. In a nutshell, the employer must prove that the fire officer’s primary duty is acting as a manager of the organization [fire department] and not as a first responder. This is necessary, since DOL regulations prohibit applying any of the “white-collar” overtime exemptions to “first responders.”  

Defining the term “first responder” as it applies to fire officers and the FLSA’s “white-collar” overtime exemption is where this gets complicated. Proving that a fire officer’s primary duty is management of the fire department can be relatively simple for senior fire officers that are assigned to administrative staff positions and work the typical Monday thru Friday administrative schedule. Most fire chiefs, assistant fire chiefs and other senior staff officers do not find their day full of non-discretionary emergency responses and other policy driven tasks. These staff officers are not likely dispatched to commercial box alarms, local alarms, unusual or significant EMS calls, or serious motor vehicle accidents.

However, senior fire officers [i.e., shift commanders] that work twenty-four or forty-eight-hour shifts are likely dispatched on the above types of incidents. Is a high-ranking fire officer automatically a first responder if he or she is assigned to work a twenty-four or a forty-eight-hour shift and is dispatched to emergency calls as a regular part of their duties? What if that officer has some discretion as to whether he or she responds to certain incidents? What if that officer also makes high-level management related decisions while working that shift? As I wrote above, this gets complicated.

Do you have questions related the FLSA and DOL “white-collar” overtime exemptions? If yes, please consider joining us for the live webinar entitled: Advanced FLSA: Executive Exemption-Fire Officers and Overtime at 1 PM (EST) on Wednesday February 1, 2023. Click here, for more information. This advanced program takes a deep-dive into recent court decisions and litigation related to fire officers and the various “white-collar” overtime exemptions.

Here is the complaint and eventual settlement from Rancho Santa Fe lawsuit.

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