Buntin v. Schlumberger Tech. Corp., Supreme Court Nos. S-17309/17519

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
Writing for the CourtWINFREE, Justice.
Citation487 P.3d 595
Docket NumberSupreme Court Nos. S-17309/17519
Decision Date11 June 2021

487 P.3d 595

Travis BUNTIN, Plaintiff,

Supreme Court Nos. S-17309/17519

Supreme Court of Alaska.

June 11, 2021

Daniel I. Pace, Pace Law Offices, Anchorage, Timothy W. Seaver, Seaver & Wagner, LLC, Anchorage, and Kenneth W. Legacki, Kenneth W. Legacki, P.C., Anchorage, for Plaintiff.

William J. Evans, Sedor Wendlandt Evans & Filippi LLC, Anchorage, Aaron D. Sperbeck, Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot, Anchorage, Martin J. Regimbal and Jennifer D. Sims, The Kullman Firm, P.L.C., Columbus, Mississippi, and Samuel Zurik, III, Robert P. Lombardi, and Bryan Edward Bowdler, The Kullman Firm, P.L.C., New Orleans, Louisiana, for Defendant.

Gregory S. Fisher, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Anchorage, for Amicus Curiae The Alaska Society for Human Resource Management, State Council.

Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Carney, and Borghesan, Justices.


WINFREE, Justice.

487 P.3d 598


Schlumberger Technology Corporation is a Texas corporation providing technology services to the oil and gas industry in Alaska. Travis Buntin worked for Schlumberger in Alaska until early 2016. Shortly thereafter Buntin sued Schlumberger in federal court alleging, among other things, failure to pay overtime compensation in violation of the Alaska Wage and Hour Act (AWHA). Schlumberger responded that Buntin was not entitled to overtime compensation because the AWHA exempts individuals employed "in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity" from overtime payment.1

The federal court certified the following questions to us:2

1. What standard of proof applies to exemptions to the overtime provisions of the Alaska Wage and Hour Act (AWHA)?

2. Following Encino Motorcars v. Navarro , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S. Ct. 1134, 200 L.Ed.2d 433 (2018), should exemptions under the Alaska Wage and Hour Act (AWHA) be given a narrow or fair interpretation?[3 ]

We accepted the certified questions. The parties submitted full briefing on the questions, and amicus curiae Alaska Society for Human Resource Management, State Council, submitted a brief on the standard of proof question.

We conclude that an employer must prove that an AWHA exemption applies by a preponderance of the evidence, and we reverse our precedent to the contrary. We also conclude that Encino ’s interpretive principle that courts must give federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) exemptions a fair interpretation applies when the AWHA text explicitly requires alignment with FLSA interpretations.


We exercise our independent judgment when answering a certified question of law and "select the rule of law that is most persuasive in light of precedent, reason, and policy."4


A. AWHA's Framework And 2005 Amendments

The two certified questions require an examination of the AWHA and our case law interpreting it. The AWHA has its origins in

487 P.3d 599

federal labor laws. The 1938 FLSA was "the original anti-poverty law, enacted by Congress as the country was struggling out of [the] throes of the Great Depression."5 Through the FLSA Congress established minimum wage floors and maximum workweek hours.6 Congress also authorized states to establish their own labor laws further protecting workers.7 In 1959 the Alaska legislature enacted the AWHA.8 The policy behind the AWHA is to:

(1) establish minimum wage and overtime compensation standards for workers at levels consistent with their health, efficiency, and general well-being, and

(2) safeguard existing minimum wage and overtime compensation standards that are adequate to maintain the health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers against the unfair competition of wage and hour standards that do not provide adequate standards of living.[9 ]

Similar to the FLSA, the AWHA provides a minimum wage and requires employers to pay workers overtime compensation after a maximum number of hours in a workweek or workday10 unless an exemption applies.11 But the AWHA mandates a more generous minimum wage and imposes stricter overtime compensation requirements.12

The AWHA's exemptions are codified at AS 23.10.055. The exemptions relevant to this case are those involving individuals employed "in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity,"13 often referred to as the "white collar" exemptions.14 Because the FLSA does not preempt the AWHA,15 employees often assert unpaid overtime claims under both state and federal law.16 Although the state and federal white collar exemptions are similarly worded, courts once used different tests to determine whether an exemption applied.17 The use and

487 P.3d 600

application of different tests led to confusion among employers.18 The legislature accordingly amended the AWHA in 2005 to "provid[e] definitions for persons employed in administrative, executive, and professional capacities."19 The amendments explicitly aligned the definitions and interpretations of the white collar exemptions with federal law: " ‘[B]ona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity’ has the meaning and shall be interpreted in accordance with 29 U.S.C. 201 - 219 ([FLSA] of 1938), as amended, or the regulations adopted under those sections."20

Hearing testimony emphasized that the AWHA amendments would address only one aspect: exemptions for salaried private sector employees.21 Discussions regarding the amendments also focused almost entirely on removing Alaska's test for determining if an individual qualified as an executive, administrative, or professional employee is exempt from overtime requirements, and adopting the federal "primary duties" test.22 The amendment's sponsor, Representative Norman Rokeberg, explained:

[H.B. 182] sets forth some clarifications to [the AWHA] by basically clarifying and redefining to a limited degree the definitions of executive capacity, administrative capacity, and professional capacity within our code. The primary step of this bill before us eliminates what's known as the long test or the 80:20 test or, in the retail trade, the 60:40 test.[23 ]

Notably, the amendments did not adopt the federal definitions for all exemptions.24

487 P.3d 601

B. The Standard Of Proof Question

1. Overview

We now turn to the first certified question:

What standard of proof applies to exemptions to the overtime provisions of the Alaska Wage and Hour Act?[25 ]

We briefly have stated on three separate occasions, beginning with a holding in Dayhoff v. Temsco Helicopters, Inc. in 1993, that the applicable standard of proof for AWHA exemptions is beyond a reasonable doubt.26

In Dayhoff a helicopter pilot sued his former employer, Temsco Helicopters, Inc., for unpaid overtime wages under the AWHA.27 Temsco asserted that Dayhoff was an exempt professional.28 The superior court granted summary judgment in Temsco's favor, holding, among other things, that Dayhoff could not recover under the AWHA because he was an exempt professional.29 On appeal we described the process for proving an AWHA exemption, stating:

AWHA is based upon the [FLSA] and federal interpretations of FLSA are relevant in interpreting AWHA. Under federal law, the employer has the burden to prove the exemption is applicable. "Exemptions are to be narrowly construed against the employer." "If there is a reasonable doubt as to whether an employee meets the criteria for exemption, the employee should be ruled non-exempt."[30 ]

Viewing the facts in Dayhoff's favor, we concluded: "Dayhoff [could], at most, be classified as a highly trained technician and not as a professional."31 We therefore concluded: "Temsco [did] not meet the burden of showing that the exemption is applicable."32

Contrary to Schlumberger's arguments, this was not dicta:

Dicta is defined as "[o]pinions of a judge which do not embody the resolution or determination of the specific case before the court. Expressions in [the] court's opinion which go beyond the facts before [the] court ... are individual views of [the] author of [the] opinion and not binding in subsequent cases as legal precedent." [33 ]

Our applicable standard of proof statement was not opinion or conjecture. It was a statement of law explaining an employer's heavy burden for asserting an AWHA exemption; we relied on this conclusion of law when deciding that granting Temsco summary judgment was erroneous. Dayhoff is binding

487 P.3d 602

precedent on this point unless we have reason to overrule it.34

2. Schlumburger's argument that the 2005 AWHA amendments specify the applicable standard of proof for AWHA exemptions

Schlumberger argues that the 2005 amendments mandate that AWHA exemptions "be interpreted in accordance with the FLSA" and that the preponderance of the evidence...

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