A Brooklyn federal judge has ruled that baklava chefs’ jobs were not “creative” to meet the Fair Labor Standards Act’s creative professional exemption from overtime pay. The judge held that this exemption requires “innovation and imagination,” not the “consistency and precision” displayed by the Turkish baklava and baked goods chefs when making their tasty treats.
In a decision denying summary judgment to the defendants, the court held that the exemption defense failed because “although defendants adequately demonstrate that plaintiffs were experienced and talented [chefs], defendants [did] not demonstrate how plaintiffs’ experience and talent were applied to an innovative and imaginative task.”
The defendants, Gulluoglu, an entity that sells Turkish food at multiple locations, and its manager, failed to shoulder their burden of proving that its employees fell within the exemption. According to the court, “[d]efendants did not sell their baklava and other baked goods in five-star or gourmet establishments, and plaintiffs, tasked with preparing baklava and other enumerated Turkish baked goods to be sold by third parties, did not have the autonomy to design unique dishes and menu items.”
The plaintiffs, both former baked goods chefs for Gulluoglu, frequently worked 60 hour weeks, but were only paid a fixed weekly salary of $700. Although the plaintiffs’ skills and training were brought up in court, such as a plaintiff serving as an apprentice to a baklava maker in Turkey for seven years, deposition testimony showed that the baklava chef never prepared baklava from scratch. Rather, plaintiff would heat and apply a “sweet syrup” to frozen baklava imported from Turkey. Starting in 2010, however, the baklava was imported pre-cooked, with the syrup glaze already applied. Additionally, the pastry chef’s cakes were not made from scratch, but imported and defrosted.
Defendants argued that “plaintiffs’ talent alone should trigger the exemption.” Yet, the court held that “[t]he regulatory language makes clear that an employee talented at an unimaginative and unoriginal task does not fall within the exemption.”
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, and is titled Eren v. Gulluoglu LLC, Case No. 15-CV-4083.