The Limits of the FLSA Exemption for “Learned Professionals”

Vincent Jackson
Vincent Jackson

When flying, many passengers have experienced that moment of turbulence, that disconcerting jolt of the aircraft.  During the precious seconds that follow, you may have offered a quick prayer that the pilot draw on his years of experience, education and expertise to guide the plane to safety.  You may have additionally marveled that any human being could exert control over an object as large and complex as a commercial jet.  Small wonders, indeed—at least according to one recent court decision in California.

A federal court in California considered the question of whether airline pilots qualify as exempt “learned professionals” under California’s Wage Order 9 and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.  While conceding that pilots’ expertise is highly technical and even specialized, the Court nevertheless held that pilots would not qualify as exempt learned professionals, primarily due to the fact they are not required to obtain an advanced academic degree to perform their jobs.

The Code of Federal Regulations specifies that to qualify for the learned professional exemption, an employee’s primary duty “must be the performance of work requiring advanced knowledge in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction. This primary duty test includes three elements:

(1) The employee must perform work requiring advanced knowledge;

(2) The advanced knowledge must be in a field of science or learning; and

(3) The advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized  intellectual instruction.”

29 C.F.R. § 541.301

In holding that airline pilots did not meet these criteria, the court noted that many airlines do not require pilots to have a college degree, and that the majority of a pilot’s duties during a commercial flight are automated.  The Court additionally found that though pilots must undergo extensive training, that training consists primarily of flight hours and other practical experience, not extensive “intellectual study.”  Notably, the court made these holdings on cross motions for summary judgment, stating that “no reasonable juror could conclude that the airline pilots in this case meet the definition of a learned professional.” 

The case is Dan Goldthorpe, et al. v. Cathay Pacific Airways Limited, et al., Case No. 17-cv-03233-VC, in the United States District Court For The Northern District Of California.

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