White Collar Overtime Exemptions in the Fashion Industry – Part II

Salary Thresholds Under New York State Law For White Collar Overtime Exemptions

In Part One of this article, we discussed tests for allowing exemption from overtime pay for “white collar” professional, executive and administrative employees under federal and New York State law.

Effective December 31, 2018, New York State’s salary basis threshold for exempt executive and administrative (but not professional) employees increased. Employers should periodically review the job duties, functions and salaries of those currently classified as exempt and, if they wish to maintain the exemption for those below the new thresholds, must increase their salaries accordingly. Here are the new minimum salary requirements to maintain exemptions from overtime for employers in New York State:

Employers in New York City

  • Large employers (11 or more employees)
    • $1,125.00 per week ($58,500 annually) on and after 12/31/18
  • Small employers (10 or fewer employees)
    • $1,012.50 per week ($52,650 annually) on and after 12/31/18
    • $1,125.00 per week ($58,500 annually) on and after 12/31/19

Employers in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties

  • $900.00 per week ($46,800 annually) on and after 12/31/18
  • $975.00 per week ($50,700 annually) on and after 12/31/19
  • $1,050.00 per week ($54,600 annually) on and after 12/31/20
  • $1,125.00 per week ($58,500 annually) on and after 12/31/21

Employers Outside of New York City and Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties

  • $832.00 per week ($43,264 annually) on and after 12/31/18
  • $885.00 per week ($46,020 annually) on and after 12/31/19
  • $937.50 per week ($48,750 annually) on and after 12/31/20

New York State has no minimum salary for exempt “professional” employees, although most of those employees would still be subject to the federal salary minimum for exemption ($455 per week, or $23,660 annually). The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) has not raised the federal minimum salary for exemption since 2004, but on March 7, 2019, the DOL published a proposed rule that would increase the salary threshold for managerial, administrative and professional white collar exemptions to $679 per week ($35,308 per year), to take effect on January 1, 2020.

New York Fashion Industry employers should review the job duties, functions and salaries of their employees whom they currently classify as exempt from overtime pay to insure compliance with both the job duties and salary requirements. For an employee whose salary falls below pay requirements, the employer will have to decide whether to increase the salary in order to be able to continue the overtime exemption or to reclassify the currently exempt employee as non-exempt and pay them overtime for hours worked over forty in a week.

For those currently exempt employees whom the employer decides to reclassify as non-exempt, the employer should insure that all their work time is accurately recorded as of the date of change and going forward. Finally, employers should make it a point to conduct regular reviews of the primary duties of those employees it wishes to continue as exempt, since merely paying the higher salaries will not be sufficient. To qualify for the overtime exemption, employers will be required to meet both the salary test and the job duties test.

SUMMARY

Federal and state overtime law are quite fact specific. Failure to comply can lead to expensive administrative and court proceedings. The statutes of limitations – that is, the look back periods the agencies and the courts may consider in calculating overtime pay deficiencies – are two years under federal law (three years if a willful violation is found), but are six years under New York State law. And both federal and state laws provide for liquidated (double) damages and for an employer to pay the legal fees of a successful plaintiff’s lawyer. Moreover, class and collective actions abound. In short, stay current on what you need to know and consult with employment counsel as needed and whenever in doubt; or be prepared to endure exceedingly painful, protracted and costly legal consequences.

Credit: Evan J. Spelfogel

See post…White Collar Overtime Exemptions in the Fashion Industry – Part I


White Collar Overtime Exemptions in the Fashion Industry – Part I

One of the most costly mistakes a fashion business can make is to misclassify an employee as overtime exempt regardless of the employee’s duties and functions. That creates the risk of substantial liability under both federal and state law.

The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act provides for several basic overtime exemptions. These include the executive, professional and administrative exemptions and are commonly referred to as “white collar” exemptions.

To be exempt from overtime pay, an employee must be paid a fixed salary regardless of hours worked of at least $455 per week ($23,660 per year) under federal law, and more than twice that amount under New York State Labor Law, and must have duties and functions that fall within the applicable duties test.

Executive Exemption Duties Requirements

To qualify as an exempt executive (high-level manager), an employee’s primary duties must relate to managing a business or a department within a business. The employee must regularly supervise at least two full-time employees or the equivalent in part-time employees, and must have the authority to hire, fire and discipline employees, or effectively to recommend such action. Secondary tests include interviewing and training employees, and assigning and directing their work. Typically, this exemption would attach to store and departmental managers.

Administrative Exemption Duties Requirements

To qualify as an exempt administrative employee, the employee’s primary duties must consist of the performance of office or non-manual work directly related to management policies or general business operations, including customarily and regularly exercising discretion and independent judgment involving the comparison and evaluation of alternative courses of conduct and making decisions, after consideration of the various possibilities, free from immediate direction or supervision.

Duties may relate to taxes, finance, accounting, budgeting, auditing, insurance, quality control, purchasing, procurement, advertising, marketing, research, safety and health, personnel management, human resources, employee benefits, labor relations, public relations, government relations, computer network, internet and database administration, and legal and regulatory compliance.

Factors may include whether the employee formulates, affects, interprets, or implements policies or practices, whether the employee may commit the employer in matters having significant financial impact, and whether the employee has authority to waive or deviate from established company policies and procedures without prior approval.

Professional Exemption Duties Requirements

An exempt professional employee is one who falls under the definition of either a “learned professional” or a “creative professional.” Learned professionals work in professions typically requiring an advanced degree (college or higher) and a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction such as law, medicine, accounting, engineering, teaching, or architecture. Primary duties must be intellectual and involve the regular use of discretion and independent judgment.

Creative professionals in the fashion industry include, among others, fashion designers, fashion stylists, textile designers, fashion public relations, fashion writers, fashion illustrators, garment technologists, graphic designers and artists, creative employees who are given only a subject matter or underlying concept of what they will create, and individuals who plan and direct the creative elements of new fashion and their advertising agencies. These individuals’ primary duty is performing work that requires invention, imagination, originality or talent, as distinguishable from work dependent merely on intelligence, diligence, and accuracy. Examples of non-exempt work in fashion include fabric cutters, sizers, copyists, re-touchers of photographs, and rewriters of press releases or advertising copy, and general fashion industry employees whose work is subject to substantial control.

In Part Two, we will review in detail the New York State salary thresholds for overtime exemption.

Credit: Evan J. Spelfogel

Evan is a senior counsel in the Employment & Labor Law Practice.

See post…“White Collar Overtime Exemptions in the Fashion Industry – Part II


Supreme Court to Resolve When Copyright Suit Can Commence

On January 8, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC. The court is expected to resolve a decades-old split of opinion among the federal Circuit Courts on whether the Copyright Act permits a lawsuit to be filed upon submission of a copyright application or not until the copyright registration certificate has been issued or refused.

The language in the statute is simple. 17 U.S.C. § 411 reads: “no civil action shall be instituted until … registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.” The statute also provides that, “[i]n any case … where the deposit, application, and fee required for registration have been delivered to the Copyright Office in proper form and registration has been refused, the applicant is entitled to institute a civil action for infringement if notice thereof, with a copy of the complaint, is served on the Register of Copyrights.”

In this case, Fourth Estate sued Wall-Street.com when the website continued to publish Fourth Estate’s work after the expiration of the limited license that had been granted to the website. Fourth Estate filed copyright applications for the misappropriated online publications and then asserted a claim for copyright infringement; however, its claim was dismissed by the Eleventh Circuit because the Copyright Office had not yet issued registration certificates. As have the Courts of Appeal for the Third and Seventh Circuits, the Eleventh Circuit follows the Tenth Circuit’s “registration approach,” which requires the Copyright Office to have acted on an application for registration by approving or denying it prior to initiating a lawsuit. The Fifth and the Ninth Circuits, however, follow the “application approach,” which allows for the commencement of an action upon filing a copyright application.

The split among those courts has large implications for photographers, writers, musicians, and fashion designers. For instance, the Copyright Office application processing time is notoriously slow: it can range from six months to more than a year to issue a registration. Creators are forced to endure an unpredictable wait time – or avoid that delay by paying an additional $800 special handling fee for expedited processing. In a seasonal industry such as fashion, where trends evolve so quickly and styles head to market within just a few months from creation, a small company cannot afford to sit back and wait for its copyright applications to be processed if infringement appears to be a credible threat, but it may also find that filing multiple applications with very significant expedited processing fees imposes an unacceptably great financial burden.

The fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar international industry. It has been argued that requiring the issuance of a registration certificate (or a refusal to register from the Copyright Office) for American authors and domestic works before litigation can commence conflicts with the de-emphasis on copyright formalities established by the Berne Convention, which governs copyrights across the globe. For now, this is all in the hands of the Supreme Court. We will provide a follow-up post when its decision is rendered.

Credit: Candace R. Arrington


Star Athletica: An Unsatisfying End

If you were hoping that following the Supreme Court’s decision in Star Athletica you might learn whether common stripes, chevrons, color blocks and zig zags are sufficiently original to be copyrightable—a question expressly reserved by the Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit– you will be disappointed. On August 10, 2017, the district court permitted Varsity Brands to voluntarily dismiss its copyright infringement action against Star Athletica with prejudice, over the objection of Star Athletica, which wished to pursue its counter-claims seeking to invalidate the Varsity Brands copyrights.

You might well ask, as we did, why after seven years of largely successful litigation, Varsity Brands would be permitted to walk away. Or you might ask, as we also did, why Star Athletica would object to having the suit end with no apparent injunctive or other relief awarded against it. Both are fair questions and the answer to each is unusual: The insurance company that was defending Star Athletica reached a settlement agreement with Varsity Brands, without the participation or approval of Star Athletica. The terms of the settlement are confidential. The only clue is the court’s reservation to Varsity Brands of the right to return to court if it does not receive the payment from the insurer required by the settlement. As far as Varsity Brands is concerned, not only does it get money, but it also avoids the potential for invalidation of its copyrights, having made its point that the two dimensional designs reflected in its uniforms are separable from their utilitarian features and theoretically capable of copyright protection. It now has a stronger threat to hurl at potential competitors.

But what of Star Athletica and its interest in settling its rights to compete with Varsity Brands in the cheerleading uniform market? In the view of the court, Star Athletica receives what is in effect immunity from future claims of copyright infringement related to the copyrights and uniforms at issue in the action. And also in the court’s view, Star Athletica’s counter-claims to invalidate the copyrights were only defenses to the copyright infringement claims and not independent bases for legal action once the threat of copyright liability was removed. And that is the rub: Varsity Brands has many other copyright registrations for which similar challenges to their validity might (or might not) have merit. Because the court did not provide guidance on that fundamental point, competing uniform makers remain exposed to similar infringement claims.

One can’t help feeling that the broader fashion public had an interest in the resolution of the question of whether stripes and chevrons are original when applied to garments. But it is an axiom of federal court litigation that the courts do not decide hypothetical cases or controversies for the edification of the public.

For now, if you are interested in whether stripes can be protected in fashion, you will have to focus on trademarks and not copyrights. There is always Gucci’s suit against Forever 21 for knocking off what it claims is its stripes trademark. And then, too, there is Adidas’ pending suit against Skechers for knocking off its three stripe trademark. The district court in Oregon just decided that Adidas’ trademark infringement suit can proceed.

Credit:  Helene M. Freeman


Legally Chic in Barcelona

Hotel El Palace (Barcelona) rooftop twilight | © Alan Behr

In the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona, several of us, including my colleague Alan Behr, gathered for a private fashion industry meeting at the exquisite Hotel El Palace. While sipping tea and sampling fine pastries, we heard brief presentations on important legal developments from around the world.

Owen Tse, a partner at Vivien Chan & Co. in Hong Kong, presented on the New Balance case before the Intermediate Court in the People’s Republic of China. The court ruled in favor of the Chinese company New Barlun, which New Balance had accused of selling infringing footwear. The court relied on the fact that New Barlun had filed the Chinese mark before New Balance had made an attempt. To add insult to injury, the court awarded the equivalent of US $15.8 million to New Barlun, which was subsequently reduced to the equivalent of approximately US $700,000 by the Appeals Court. Owen also reported an interesting fact—“Ivanka Trump” in Chinese was the subject of more than 300 trademark applications in the PRC since 2016.

In addition, the practice of using “shadow companies” to infringe the Chinese translation of well-known brand owner’s trademarks is on the rise in Hong Kong. Infringers promote themselves by claiming they have authorization or license from the shadow companies. Example: Pearl Bay vs. Peony Bay in English and Chinese.

From Amsterdam, Herwin Roerdink of Vondst Advocaten gave a presentation regarding fashion brand owners and European Union data protection regulations. Herwin discussed the issue of smart products, such as socks that collect running data of their wearers and golf shirts that track swings, all in connection with EU privacy regulations. Specifically, a new EU privacy law, GDPR, EU 2016/679, which will become effective on May 25, 2018, imposes heavier regulation and more obligations on data controllers and data processors, whether or not the data is processed in the EU. GDPR also applies to the processing of data of those in the EU by non-EU entities that offer goods and services that monitor behavior in the EU. Non-EU fashion brand owners who target EU customers with monitoring products will therefore be subject to the regulation.

Herwin also explained the differences between the approach of the Dutch data protection authority and the United States Federal Trade Commission regarding the permissibility of WiFi tracking by retailers. Although the Dutch decision was based on Dutch implementation of the EU Privacy Directive, which focuses on whether the processing is necessary to achieve the desired purpose, the FTC decision was based on balancing the concern for customer harm and the legitimate interests of the retailer.

From London, Roland Mallinson of Taylor Wessing updated us on the implications of Brexit to fashion IP, on the assumption that the United Kingdom will not leave the EU before March 2019. Roland predicted that existing European Union Trade Mark (EUTM) registrations will likely continue to be recognized in the UK. He posited that parallel filing in the EU and UK is not imperative now, especially if you are not yet using your mark in the UK. He expressed confidence that there will be some arrangement by which current EUTM trademarks and those being filed now will result in protection in the UK, from the current priority date; however, because nothing is for certain, Roland recommended that strategically key brands continue to file UK applications in parallel with any new EUTM applications. For existing UK and EUTM registrations, it does not automatically follow that a new UK application should be filed now – even for strategically key brands.

The discussion also focused on the practical issue of transferring 900,000 EUTM registrations to the UK system, a process made more complex by the fact that a fair number of the registrations were not filed in English. Some issues, like parallel imports and European design rights, have political sensitivities.

Finally, I made a presentation regarding the important Star Athletica case, which was decided by the US Supreme Court in March 2017. We have previously reported on that development in our blogs on March 22, 2017 and May 5, 2017.

In short, we had a very enjoyable and productive meeting. And as anyone who attends the INTA annual meeting knows, half the pleasure for us was being able to sit down while we networked with friends and colleagues.

Credit:  Monica P. McCabe

Thank you to Phillips Nizer law clerk Candace Arrington of our Corporate & Business Law and Intellectual Property Law Practices for providing assistance with the review and preparation of this blog post.


The Curious Case of the Cheerleader Uniforms

Cheerleader-with single focus

One of the hot topics du jour in the fashion press is the copyright battle in the Supreme Court involving cheerleader uniforms. It poses the question of when a two-dimensional design that is part of a useful article is copyrightable—in this case, designs consisting of color blocks, chevrons, and lines in uniforms for cheerleaders. The Copyright Act provides that a “useful article” is not copyrightable, but it allows for copyright in the “pictorial, graphic and sculptural” features of useful objects as long as those features are “separable” from and can exist independently of the object itself.

Under the statutory definition, you can secure a copyright for a fabric or lace design, but you cannot secure a copyright in a dress made with the fabric or lace. An artist who draws a dress can secure a copyright in the drawing and can prevent someone from using it on greeting cards or wastebaskets, but the artist cannot use the copyright to prevent anyone from actually making the dress depicted in the drawing.

Although the concept of separability is easy to state in the abstract, at times it has been hard to apply in practice. Cheerleader uniforms present a particularly difficult problem. The designs here are not printed on the fabrics used in the uniforms. They are part of the garment’s construction. The placement of the design features—color piping around the neckline and arm holes, lines down the sides in color blocks, chevrons in the center, lines marking the boundaries between blocks of color—results from the contours of the garments. The placement also serves the functional purposes of hiding seams that are sewn on the outside (instead of the inside) of the garments to prevent chafing, strengthening parts of the garments so that they hold their shape, and creating optical illusions that lengthen the torso and slim the waist. The designs also help make the garments recognizable as uniforms and not street clothing.

The challenger, Star Athletica, focuses on those functional considerations and argues that the designs are inherent in the useful objects and do not exist independently. It argues that, if the designs have any function, they are not separable from the uniforms.

The United States and Varsity Brands, the copyright owner, argue that, because the graphic designs can be applied to products other than dresses, they are separable, can exist independently and are therefore copyrightable. The government further argues that the Copyright Office cannot be in the business of determining how any particular two-dimensional design functions in any given context when called upon to determine whether it can indeed exist independently. Under that argument, any two-dimensional design could potentially be deemed independent and separable from the three-dimensional objects to which it is applied.

In a great irony, the case was argued before the Supreme Court on Halloween. Halloween costumes frequently have been the subject of litigation under the particular provisions of the Copyright Act at issue in the case. (In case you are wondering, under current precedent, costumes are generally not copyrightable, but masks generally are.)

Reading the oral argument before the Supreme Court and the briefs, I was struck by the fact that the case is not unlike the famous figure ground optical illusion in which you can simultaneously see either a goblet or the profile of two faces. Star Athletica sees the goblet. If the lines define the goblet, it is the design of a useful object, and Varsity Brands cannot prevent Star from making the goblet. But Varsity Brands and the government see the profile pictures, which are separable, and it would be irrelevant whether they also define a goblet from the perspective of another viewer.

Stanford Law School Professor Mark Lemley, as the lead author of a brief submitted by a number of law professors in support of Star Athletica, attempts to separate the figure from the ground. He argues that copyright could protect the designs, but not the coordination and arrangement (i.e. placement) of the elements of the designs that result from the shape or construction of the garments. In effect, this proposed test would exclude from the protection of copyright those elements of the designs dictated by the needs of making the useful article truly useful.

There are other relevant questions that none of the lower courts in the case considered and which none of the briefs submitted to the Supreme Court addressed: What are the two-dimensional designs that are protected and are those designs copyrightable under more general principles of copyright law? Are they original or are they in the public domain? Is there a merger of the general idea with its expression so that there is nothing that is copyrightable? Are the decorative aspects what copyright law refers to as “scènes à faire” (stock representations implicit in the subject matter, in this case cheerleader uniforms)? Both the trial court and the appellate court expressly said they were not addressing whether the two-dimensional designs were copyrightable and were reserving that question. And the Supreme Court, in accepting the case, refused to consider this question, because it was not ruled on below.

Justice Elena Kagan inquired at argument: What is your design; can someone just add another stripe to avoid infringement? Varsity Brands’ counsel did not address the first part of the question and, in response to the second part, said that merely adding something to a copyrightable design “usually” does not avoid infringement. The response did little to address the Court’s expressed concern for the anti-competitive effect on the market for cheerleader uniforms and markets for other products for which the design has a functional purpose, such as camouflage fabric for military use. Indeed, it is worth noting that Star Athletica made a point of informing the Court that Varsity Brands controls 80% of the U.S. market for cheerleader uniforms.

That may help explain why all of the Supreme Court Justices who asked questions were troubled by the idea of handing Varsity Brands a monopoly over cheerleader uniform designs through the use of its copyright registrations. How they might avoid that result is an open question. Star Athletica offered one alternative that might have a major impact on the fashion industry, particularly on the accessories market, where protection of three-dimensional designs is an on-going concern: Any aspect of the design that is functional in part is not conceptually separable. (Say goodbye to the Kieselstein-Cord belt buckle decision, a ground-breaking case won by this firm and which a number of briefs argued was wrongly decided.) Another alternative, endorsed by the American Intellectual Property Association, is to vacate the decision and instruct the court below to determine first the validity of the copyright in the designs under more general copyright law concepts that would factor into the analysis the use of routine design features in uniforms. Either way, one suspects that Star Athletica’s use of its copyrights to prevent competition in the cheerleader uniform market may be short lived.

Credit: Helene M. Freeman

Here’s a previous post that may be of interest…

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