Rule of Law

Mayfield v. Department of Labor

In Mayfield v. Department of Labor, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is considering whether the Department of Labor’s new salary threshold for exemptions from overtime pay is authorized by federal law.

Case Summary

The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act exempts “bona fide executive, administrative, or professional” employees from its minimum wage and overtime pay requirements and directs the Department of Labor to define whether an employee is exempt under this section. The Department of Labor’s longstanding definition emphasizes the duties that employees perform but also requires that exempt workers be paid a salary over a certain threshold.  In 2019, the Department extended its 2004 methodology for the “salary-level” test and updated it to reflect current earnings data. Employees earning less than $35,588 per year are not exempt from the statute’s overtime protections.

Robert Mayfield, an employer whose employees became nonexempt under the 2019 Rule and therefore became eligible for overtime pay, sued, claiming that the Department of Labor does not have the authority to impose a salary-level test, even though it has done so since 1938. A federal district court dismissed the case, concluding that the Rule falls within the Department’s authority. Mayfield appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing, among other things, that the 2019 Rule violates the “major questions doctrine,” which requires agencies to show clear congressional authorization for certain actions.

In March 2024, CAC filed an amicus brief in support of the federal government. Our brief makes three main points.

First, we explain that under Supreme Court precedent the major questions doctrine applies only in “extraordinary” cases, where an agency’s breathtaking assertion of new power reflects a dubious effort to transform the fundamental nature of its authority. Supreme Court decisions have consistently demonstrated that more is needed to implicate the doctrine than economic and political significance alone; other factors must also indicate that the agency is subverting congressional intent by seeking “an unheralded power representing a transformative expansion in its regulatory authority.”

Second, we show that the salary-level test for FLSA-exempt workers in the 2019 Rule is far from “extraordinary.” None of the criteria that weigh in favor of applying the major questions doctrine are met in this case. The Rule does not approach the magnitude of economic and political significance required to trigger the doctrine, nor does it transform the authority Congress meant to confer in the relevant statute.

Finally, we argue that extending the major questions doctrine to cases like this would undermine traditional statutory interpretation and constitutional principles. We discuss how the major questions doctrine is in tension with textualism because it emphasizes pragmatic considerations outside the statutory text. We also explain that the Constitution’s original public meaning does not support the premise underlying the doctrine: the Founders had no qualms about directing the executive branch to handle major policy questions, and history does not suggest that Congress must speak in any particular manner to do so. Finally, we discuss how overuse of the major questions doctrine would undermine the separation of powers and thrust the courts beyond their proper role in interpreting the law.

Because the Department of Labor’s 2019 Rule does not meet the high standard the Supreme Court has prescribed for applying the major questions doctrine, and because applying the doctrine more widely would exacerbate its tensions with textualism, the Constitution’s original meaning, and the separation of powers, the Fifth Circuit should decline to apply the doctrine and should uphold the Department’s salary threshold for exempt workers.

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