529 U.S. 576 (2000), 98-1167, Christensen v. Harris County

Docket NºCase No. 98-1167
Citation529 U.S. 576, 120 S.Ct. 1655, 146 L.Ed.2d 621, 68 U.S.L.W. 4343
Party NameCHRISTENSEN et al. v. HARRIS COUNTY et al.
Case DateMay 01, 2000
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 576

529 U.S. 576 (2000)

120 S.Ct. 1655, 146 L.Ed.2d 621, 68 U.S.L.W. 4343

CHRISTENSEN et al.

v.

HARRIS COUNTY et al.

Case No. 98-1167

United States Supreme Court

May 1, 2000

Argued February 23, 2000

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), 29 U.S.C.§ 201(o), permits States and their political subdivisions to compensate their employees for overtime work by granting them compensatory time in lieu of cash payment. If the employees do not use their accumulated compensatory time, the employer must pay cash compensation under certain circumstances. §§ 207(o)(3)-(4). Fearing the consequences of having to pay for accrued compensatory time, Harris County adopted a policy requiring its employees to schedule time off in order to reduce the amount of accrued time. Petitioners, county deputy sheriffs, sued, claiming that the FLSA does not permit an employer to compel an employee to use compensatory time in the absence of an agreement permitting the employer to do so. The District Court granted petitioners summary judgment and entered a declaratory judgment that the policy violated the FLSA. The Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that the FLSA did not speak to the issue and thus did not prohibit the county from implementing its policy.

Held:

Nothing in the FLSA or its implementing regulations prohibits a public employer from compelling the use of compensatory time. Petitioners' claim that § 207(o)(5) implicitly prohibits compelled use of compensatory time in the absence of an agreement is unpersuasive. The proposition that when a statute limits a thing to be done in a particular mode, it includes a negative of any other mode, Raleigh & Gaston R. Co. v. Reid, 13 Wall. 269, 270, does not resolve this case in petitioners' favor. Section 207(o)(5) provides that an employee who requests to use compensatory time must be permitted to do so unless the employer's operations would be unduly disrupted. The negative inference to be drawn is only that an employer may not deny a request for a reason other than that provided in § 207(o)(5). Section 207(o)(5) simply ensures that an employee receive some timely benefit for overtime work. The FLSA's nearby provisions reflect a similar concern. At bottom, the best reading of the FLSA is that it ensures liquidation of compensatory time; it says nothing about restricting an employer's efforts to require employees to use the time. Because the statute is silent on this issue and because the county's policy is entirely compatible with § 207(o)(5), petitioners cannot, as § 216(b) requires, prove that the county

Page 577

has violated § 207. Two other features of the FLSA support this interpretation: Employers are permitted to decrease the number of hours that employees work, and employers also may cash out accumulated compensatory time by paying the employee his regular hourly wage for each hour accrued. The county's policy merely involves doing both of these steps at once. A Department of Labor opinion letter taking the position that an employer may compel the use of compensatory time only if the employee has agreed in advance to such a practice is not entitled to deference under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837. Interpretations such as those in opinion letters—like interpretations contained in policy statements, agency manuals, and enforcement guidelines, all of which lack the force of law—do not warrant Chevron -style deference. They are "entitled to respect," but only to the extent that they are persuasive, Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 140, which is not the case here. Chevron deference does apply to an agency interpretation contained in a regulation, but nothing in the Department of Labor's regulation even arguably requires that an employer's compelled use policy must be included in an agreement. And deference to an agency's interpretation of its regulation is warranted under Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461, only when the regulation's language is ambiguous, which is not the case here. Pp. 582-588.

158 F.3d 241, affirmed.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter, JJ., joined, and in which Scalia, J., joined except as to Part III. Souter, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 589. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 589. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg and Breyer, JJ., joined, post, p. 592. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined, post, p. 596.

Michael T. Leibig argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Richard H. Cobb and Murray E. Malakoff.

Matthew D. Roberts argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. On the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, Jonathan E. Nuechterlein, Allen H. Feldman, and Edward D. Sieger.

Page 578

Michael P. Fleming argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Michael A. Stafford, Bruce S. Powers, and William John Bux. [*]

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), 52 Stat. 1060, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. (1994 ed. and Supp. III), States and their political subdivisions may compensate their employees for overtime by granting them compensatory time or "comp time," which entitles them to take time off work with full pay. § 207(o). If the employees do not use their accumulated compensatory time, the employer is obligated to pay cash compensation under certain circumstances. §§ 207(o)(3)-(4). Fearing the fiscal consequences of having to pay for accrued compensatory time, Harris County adopted a policy requiring its employees to schedule time off in order to reduce the amount of accrued compensatory time. Employees of the Harris County Sheriff's Department sued, claiming that the FLSA prohibits such a policy. The Court of Appeals rejected their claim. Finding that nothing in the FLSA or its implementing regulations prohibits an employer from compelling the use of compensatory time, we affirm.

I

A

The FLSA generally provides that hourly employees who work in excess of 40 hours per week must be compensated

Page 579

for the excess hours at a rate not less than 1[1] /2 times their regular hourly wage. § 207(a)(1). Although this requirement did not initially apply to public-sector employers, Congress amended the FLSA to subject States and their political subdivisions to its constraints, at first on a limited basis, see Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1966, Pub. L. 89-601, § 102(b), 80 Stat. 831 (extending the FLSA to certain categories of state and local employees), and then more broadly, see Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1974, Pub. L. 93-259, §§ 6(a)(1)-(2), 88 Stat. 58-59 (extending the FLSA to all state and local employees, save elected officials and their staffs). States and their political subdivisions, however, did not feel the full force of this latter extension until our decision in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, 469 U.S. 528 (1985), which overruled our holding in National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833 (1976), that the FLSA could not constitutionally restrain traditional governmental functions.

In the months following Garcia, Congress acted to mitigate the effects of applying the FLSA to States and their political subdivisions, passing the Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1985, Pub. L. 99-150, 99 Stat. 787. See generally Moreau v. Klevenhagen, 508 U.S. 22, 26 (1993). Those amendments permit States and their political subdivisions to compensate employees for overtime by granting them compensatory time at a rate of 1½ hours for every hour worked. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(o)(1). To provide this form of compensation, the employer must arrive at an agreement or understanding with employees that compensatory time will be granted instead of cash compensation.[1] § 207(o)(2); 29 CFR § 553.23 (1999).

Page 580

The FLSA expressly regulates some aspects of accrual and preservation of compensatory time. For example, the FLSA provides that an employer must honor an employee's request to use compensatory time within a "reasonable period" of time following the request, so long as the use of the compensatory time would not "unduly disrupt" the employer's operations. § 207(o)(5); 29 CFR § 553.25 (1999). The FLSA also caps the number of compensatory time hours that an employee may accrue. After an employee reaches that maximum, the employer must pay cash compensation for additional overtime hours worked. § 207(o)(3)(A). In addition, the FLSA permits the employer at any time to cancel or "cash out" accrued compensatory time hours by paying the employee cash compensation for unused compensatory time. § 207(o)(3)(B); 29 CFR § 553.26(a) (1999). And the FLSA entitles the employee to cash payment for any accrued compensatory time remaining upon the termination of employment. § 207(o)(4).

B

Petitioners are 127 deputy sheriffs employed by respondents Harris County, Texas, and its sheriff, Tommy B. Thomas (collectively, Harris County). It is undisputed that each of the petitioners individually agreed to accept compensatory time, in lieu of cash, as compensation for overtime.

As petitioners accumulated compensatory time, Harris County became concerned that it lacked the resources to pay monetary compensation to employees who worked overtime after reaching the statutory cap on compensatory time accrual and to employees who left their jobs with sizable reserves of accrued time. As a result, the county began looking for a way to reduce accumulated compensatory time. It wrote to the United States Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, asking "whether the Sheriff may schedule...

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