Avoiding Mead: The Problem with Unanimity in Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. V. Coke

Article excerpt

One of the central questions in administrative law is the appropriate level of deference courts should give to agency interpretations of statutorily conferred authority. The Supreme Court announced its most recent major doctrinal development in this area in United States v. Mead Corp., (1) a 2001 opinion in which the Court held that an "administrative implementation of a particular statutory provision" was entitled to deference if the agency was self-consciously exercising congressionally delegated authority to "make rules carrying the force of law." (2) In redefining the boundaries of the well-established Chevron (3) doctrine, Mead soon became the subject of significant confusion and academic discussion, (4) but the Court has not clarified its holding in the seven years since announcing the decision. Last term, in Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, (5) the Court gave deference to a Department of Labor decision to exempt "companionship services" employees from minimum wage and overtime compensation benefits. (6) At first glance, Long Island Care seems to be a straightforward and inconsequential opinion that invokes Mead to reach its disposition. In examining the opinion's reasoning, however, it is evident that the Court avoided a full discussion of Mead for the sake of unanimity, thus making Long Island Care a notable example of Chief Justice Roberts's announced preference for narrow and unanimous opinions. More importantly, Long Island Care demonstrates that narrowing an opinion for the sake of unanimity is undesirable when it delays much needed doctrinal clarification and development.

In 1913, President William Howard Taft signed a bill authorizing the creation of the Department of Labor, which was designed in part "to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States." (7) Twenty-five years later, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act, which created the Wage and Hour Division within the Department of Labor and codified worker protections such as minimum wage and overtime pay. (8) In 1974, as part of a lengthy series of amendments designed to increase the scope of wage protections, (9) Congress brought most domestic service employees under the umbrella of the Act, but exempted workers who provide "companionship services" to individuals who cannot care for themselves. (10) Congress left the scope of this exemption ambiguous, indicating that the Department of Labor should define "domestic service employment" and "companionship services" through the promulgation of regulations. (11)

The Department responded to this congressional mandate by issuing a series of regulations the following year. The agency defined "companionship services" as "services which provide fellowship, care, and protection for a person who ... cannot care for his or her own needs." (12) In addition, the Department issued a "General Regulation" defining "domestic service employment" to include "services of a household nature performed by an employee in or about a private home ... of the person by whom he or she is employed." (13) Concurrently, in a regulation seemingly inconsistent with the General Regulation, the Department determined that workers who provide domestic services while employed by third parties are exempt from the pay protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act. (14) Justice Breyer later dubbed this the "third-party regulation." (15)

In April 2002, Evelyn Coke brought a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York against her former employer, Long Island Care at Home, Ltd., challenging these Department of Labor regulations. (16) Coke sought compensation for overtime and minimum wage pay she had been denied while working for several years as a "home healthcare attendant" for Long Island Care. (17) The District Court granted Long Island Care's motion for judgment on the pleadings and upheld both of the contested regulations. (18)

The Second Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part, giving Chevron deference to the General Regulation and striking down the third-party regulation. …