Auer v Robbins Established Deference to Agency’s Interpretation of Its Own RegulationsHistorical
In Auer v Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997), the U.S. Supreme Court established the standard that courts should apply when reviewing an executive agency’s interpretation of the regulations it established under federal legislation. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that courts must defer to an agency’s “reasonable interpretation” of its own ambiguous regulations.
Facts of Auer v Robbins
Petitioners, several St. Louis police sergeants and a lieutenant, filed suit for overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). Respondents, police commissioners including David A. Robbins, argued that petitioners were “bona fide executive, administrative, or professional” employees exempted from overtime pay requirements by 29 U. S. C. § 213(a)(1).
Under the Secretary of Labor’s regulations, that exemption applies to employees paid a specified minimum amount on a “salary basis,” which requires that the “compensation … not [be] subject to reduction because of variations in the quality or quantity of the work performed.” Petitioners claimed that they did not meet this test because, under the terms of the Police Department Manual, their compensation could theoretically be reduced (though this was not the department’s general practice) for a variety of disciplinary infractions related to the “quality or quantity” of their work. Both the District Court and the Eighth Circuit disagreed with that assertion, holding that the salary-basis test was satisfied as to all petitioners.
Supreme Court’s Decision in Auer v Robbins
The Court unanimously held that the “no disciplinary deductions” element of the salary-basis test reflects a permissible reading of the FLSA as it applies to public-sector employees. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote on behalf of the Court.
“Because the salary-basis test is a creature of the Secretary’s own regulations, his interpretation of it is, under our jurisprudence, controlling unless “‘plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation,'” Justice Scalia wrote, quoting Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U. S. 410 (1945). The Court went on to conclude that the deferential standard was easily satisfied. As Justice Scalia explained:
The critical phrase “subject to” comfortably bears the meaning the Secretary assigns. See American Heritage Dictionary 1788 (3d ed. 1992) (def. 2: defining “subject to” to mean “prone; disposed”; giving as an example “a child who is subject to colds”); Webster’s New International Dictionary 2509 (2d ed. 1950) (def. 3: defining “subject to” to mean “[e]xposed; liable; prone; disposed”; giving as an example “a country subject to extreme heat”).
The Court rejected the Petitioners’ argument that the Secretary’s position was a“post hocrationalization” advanced by an agency seeking to defend past agency action against attack. Justice Scalia wrote:
There is simply no reason to suspect that the interpretation does not reflect the agency’s fair and considered judgment on the matter in question. Petitioners also suggest that the Secretary’s approach contravenes the rule that FLSA exemptions are to be “narrowly construed against … employers” and are to be withheld except as to persons “plainly and unmistakably within their terms and spirit.” But that is a rule governing judicial interpretation of statutes and regulations, not a limitation on the Secretary’s power to resolve ambiguities in his own regulations. A rule requiring the Secretary to construe his own regulations narrowly would make little sense, since he is free to write the regulations as broadly as he wishes, subject only to the limits imposed by the statute. Internal citations omitted.
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