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Grupke v. GFK Custom Research North America

United States District Court, S.D. New York

January 28, 2015

JULIE GRUPKE, Plaintiff,
v.
GFK CUSTOM RESEARCH NORTH AMERICA, Defendant.

OPINION & ORDER

PAUL A. CROTTY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Julie Grupke ("Plaintiff" or "Grupke"), who worked at GfK Custom Research North America ("Defendant" or "GfK") from September 2007 until October 2012, brings this action under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., and the Michigan Minimum Wage Law of 1964, § 480.381 et seq. ("MMWL"), claiming that GfK misclassified her under the administrative employee exemption to the FLSA, and did not pay her for the overtime hours she worked. GfK moves for summary judgment on both of Grupke's claims on the grounds that it properly classified Grupke as an administrative employee. The Court agrees and accordingly grants GfK's motion for summary judgment.

BACKGROUND[1]

Although the parties draw different legal conclusions from the factual record, the material facts themselves are essentially undisputed. GfK is a large market research organization, providing research and consulting services to clients. Def. 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 1-2. Grupke was employed in the Automotive division, which performs automotive market research. Id. ¶¶ 4-6, 21. During Grupke's employment, the Automotive division operated the Automotive Purchase Funnel study, which consisted of an upper funnel known as the Image Barometer Study, and the lower funnel, known as the Intentions Study. Id. ¶ 6. These studies measured new vehicle intenders; awareness, opinion, consideration, and imagery of a vehicle; the brand and make an individual intends to purchase; and related models or brands. Id. ¶ 7.

Grupke applied for a Research Manager position at GfK on August 12, 2007, using a job search website. Id. ¶ 17. She began working at GfK in September 2007, at which point she reported to Julie Kenar, the Vice President of the Product Management Group. Id. ¶¶ 21-23. On March 22, 2010, Brian Etchells became Grupke's direct supervisor, and she told him she sought a promotion. Id. ¶¶ 23-24. On July 4, 2011, Grupke was promoted to Senior Research Manager. Id. ¶ 25. Her promotion was announced to the company in an email which stated that Grupke "quickly made great strides in streamlining the audit process and was able to significantly reduce the amount of time it took to get data into client teams' hands. She also played an integral role in developing our first web portal." Id. This email also refers to her management and oversight of the Image Barometer program and the fact that she was "responsible for resolving several complex business issues on Image... includ[ing] aligning our segments, revisiting the decision criteria for assigning vehicles to segments, and revising and simplifying our quota structure." Id. Grupke held this position until her termination on October 4, 2012. Id. ¶ 26.

Grupke's starting salary was $49, 000; $1, 885.00 biweekly. Id. ¶ 28. She received several raises and by July 2012 was earning $59, 578.00 per year. Id. When she was employed as Research Manager, Grupke devoted approximately 80 percent of her time to managing the Image Study. Id. ¶ 35.[2] The remaining 20 percent she spent working on website administration and assistance on ad hoc projects and surveys. Id. As Senior Research Manager, 50 percent of Grupke's time was spent managing the Image Study. Id. ¶ 36. She spent approximately 5 percent of her time managing an Environmental Study and 5 percent managing a Leader in Technology Study. Id. 25 percent of her time was spent on IT project management and 10 percent administering the automotive client portal. Id.

One of Grupke's job responsibilities was "to give recommendations in multiple circumstances and then present to upper management or the affected consulting teams for them to make the final decision." Id. ¶ 39. She would often be assigned to research a particular topic, draft a list of options, make a recommendation, present that recommendation, and collect feedback and record the decision. Id. ¶¶ 40-44. She often used this process when advising not only the automotive group but the senior management group as well. Id. ¶ 43. She was responsible for implementing the decision that resulted from the decision-making process. Id. ¶ 41.

Grupke managed research projects on a day-to-day basis and was tasked with ensuring the quality of the products produced. Id. ¶ 45. She monitored data collection procedures and screening instruments, monitored study performances, tested data quality, and reported progress to account executives. Id. ¶ 46. She made recommendations on survey items and designs, made informal presentations at staff meetings, and researched data anomalies identified by others or discovered on her own. Id. Grupke was asked by client, management, and consulting teams to increase efficiency and speed up the amount of time it took to complete a survey. Id. ¶ 49.

One of Grupke's tasks was to maintain the Quarterly Code Summary, a planning process that served to update the Image study. Id. ¶¶ 52-53. This document included "proposed decisions for that particular quarter and... who proposed it, the details of the change, and what that decision made by the management team and the client teams... was." Id. ¶ 53. Quarterly pre-planning meetings occurred with consulting teams to review the Quarterly Code Summary and segments of the Image study. Id. ¶ 54. Grupke conducted these meetings with Etchells or independently. Id. After these meetings, Grupke incorporated feedback from the teams into the summary and distributed it. Id. ¶ 55. This occurred in advance of the quarterly Image Planning meetings, which were designed to reach a final decision on changes to the survey. Id. ¶ 56. In these meetings, Grupke's main goal was to "facilitate or coordinate the decision-making process." Id. ¶ 57. She also made presentations on a topic of interest. Id. Grupke described these meetings as replete with arguments about proposed changes. Id. ¶ 58. She was also responsible for working with client teams and outlining solutions for special client circumstances. Id. ¶ 59.

In May 2011, Grupke drafted Image Planning Process Commandments. Id. ¶ 60. She was to gather information from various teams, compile the information, create a PowerPoint presentation, offer problems and options to the management team, and obtain agreement on decisions. Id. ¶¶ 62-67. She also was responsible for managing the product change request process for the Image Study. Id. ¶ 68. She drafted and implemented official Image Commandments which were to serve as the "official record of processes' to be referenced in any future debates over any particular process." Id. ¶ 69. To create these commandments, senior management instructed Grupke on how she should perform this task, and she researched and explained issues to the organization and was tasked with reminding client teams that they had agreed to these rules and processes. Id. ¶¶ 70, 72.

Grupke also enabled certain process improvements in the Image Study. Id. ¶ 73.[3] She increased annual revenue, reduced the processing timeline by 25 percent, simplified aspects of the study, and reduced delivery times for certain segments of the study. Id. For example, she recommended options for simplifying the quota structure and reducing the vendor cost for fielding the survey. Id. ¶ 76. A 2010 performance review describing her work on the Image study states that she improved processing and data processing; streamlined data checking; simplified sampling; streamlined deliverable creation; and provided client teams with analytical insights into data changes. Id. ¶ 78.

GfK used outside vendors to collect and process data for certain studies. Id. ¶ 80. Grupke was tasked with quality checking the processed data, researching anomalies, and approving data to be released. Id. ¶¶ 80-81. She also researched market data to assess data trends. Id. ¶ 82. When she decided that data fit into an existing trend or a particular anomaly could be explained, she released data without approval. Id. ¶ 85. In emergency situations, she researched data issues and questions as requested by senior managers, for example in a power sports study that had issues with data production. Id. ¶¶ 98-102. She was often tasked with assisting on ad hoc surveys and studies. Id. She was responsible for data issue resolution, which entailed identifying a problem, outlining options for solutions and their pros and cons, presenting recommendations, communicating the issue internally, implementing the chosen solution, and documenting the solution. Id. ¶¶ 90-92. She made recommendations on pricing, following set guidelines but also considering certain variables. Id. ¶¶ 93-97.

Grupke also was responsible for drafting budgets for projects on which she was the primary research manager. Id. ¶¶ 103-106. Drafting the budget involved Grupke providing estimated costs and hours into a budget document provided by GfK's finance department. Id.; Grupke Decl. ¶ 28. She also managed data processing vendors and communicated with them throughout studies, sometimes requesting that they perform specific tasks. Def. 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 107-108. She was also responsible for managing WNS, an offshore resource for the product management group and client teams. Id. ¶ 111-113. She was required to supervise WNS's production of deliverables and client team reports and presentations. Id. ¶ 112. She oversaw internal resource management, for example communicating instructions and priorities and troubleshooting issues. Id. ¶ 113.

Grupke became involved in IT tasks following another employee's departure and consulted on IT implications for projects, including estimating future IT budgets. Id. ¶¶ 114-117. She also managed a project called Stat Pack, which provided clients with a visual representation of statistical analysis for specific segments of the Image study. Id. ¶¶ 118-120. Grupke served as the contact person on this project. Id. ¶ 119. She also administered the GfK Client Portal where client deliverables were posted, working with IT to solve ...


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