California Supreme Court Narrows Commissioned Salesperson Exemption
Last week the California Supreme Court continued its trend of issuing employee-friendly decisions, this time in a case involving the commissioned salesperson exemption. In Peabody v. Time Warner Cable, the plaintiff was a commissioned salesperson who sold advertising spots for Time Warner Cable. She was classified as exempt from overtime under California's commissioned salesperson exemption, which applies to a sales employee whose earnings exceed at least one and one-half times the minimum wage if more than half of those earnings represent commissions. Time Warner paid plaintiff her regular wages on a biweekly basis, but only paid her commission wages once per month. Thus, at least one paycheck per month was comprised only of base hourly pay and did not reflect earnings exceeding more than one and one-half times the minimum wage. However, the monthly commission check, which represented commissions earned for a monthly period (not just for a bi-weekly period), brought the employee's wages for the month to more than one and one-half times the minimum wage.
Plaintiff sued, arguing that she was not properly paid overtime wages for hours worked in excess of eight per day or forty per week. The trial court granted summary judgment for Time Warner, agreeing with Time Warner that it properly paid plaintiff under the commissioned salesperson exemption and that plaintiff was not entitled to additional overtime compensation. Plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which certified a question to the California Supreme Court concerning whether an employer could properly allocate commission wages over the pay periods in which they were "earned," or whether the commission wages could only be attributed to the pay period in which they were actually paid. The California Supreme Court said the latter.
In so holding, the California Supreme Court reasoned that California overtime exemptions are narrowly construed and must be interpreted in favor of the employee and against the employer. The Court's holding certainly accomplishes that. The Court acknowledged that California law permits commission wages to be paid less frequently than regular wages and that monthly, or even less frequent, payment of commission wages is permissible (given that commission wages often are not "earned" until certain conditions are satisifed and are not calculable with the same frequency as the regular payroll schedule). However, the Court reasoned that just because California law allows less frequent payment of commission wages that aren't "earned" every pay period does not mean that an employer can use a monthly or less frequent schedule to pay commission wages that are earned. The Court reasoned that California law requires that all wages earned for work performed generally be paid no less frequently than twice per month. Time Warner was arguing that it could allocate commission wages to the pay periods in which they were "earned," but the Court said that permitting this would be tantamount to authorizing monthly pay periods for wages earned. Because monthly pay periods are not authorized by the California Labor Code, the Court held that Time Warner had not properly paid the plaintiff and she did not qualify for the commissioned salesperson exemption.
The Court acknowledged that Time Warner's pay system was proper under the federal commissioned salesperson exemption, but declined to find it proper under California law because California law, unlike federal law, requires at least semi-monthly pay periods.
The California Supreme Court's decision makes it much more difficult for employers to satisfy the commissioned salesperson exemption under California law. Employers that look back and allocate commission wages over the pay periods in which they were "earned" as a means of ensuring that the employee's pay is at least one and one-half times the minimum wage, should revise their practices in light of this decision.