Nevada minimum wage amendment also repealed statutory exemptions

A voter-approved minimum wage amendment to the Nevada Constitution impliedly repealed the state’s statutory minimum wage scheme, which excluded cab drivers and other specific workers from its protections, ruled a closely divided Nevada Supreme Court. Rejecting a lower court’s conclusion that the constitutional amendment could be harmonized with the existing statutory provision, thereby keeping the statutory exemptions intact, the high court held the court below had erred in dismissing a minimum wage complaint brought by cab drivers.

Minimum wage suit. Alleging they had not been paid the constitutionally mandated minimum wage, a group of cab drivers brought a putative class action for unpaid wages against several taxicab companies. They based their claims on the Minimum Wage Amendment to the Nevada Constitution, a voter-approved amendment that increased the state minimum wage rate above that set forth in the statutory provision, NRS 608.250. At issue here was whether that amendment otherwise revised the statutory minimum wage scheme, under which cab drivers (and five other classes of employees) were expressly excluded from the state’s minimum wage protections.

The lower court dismissed the drivers’ claims, concluding that the Minimum Wage Amendment did not entirely supplant NRS 608.250 and its exemptions; rather, it could be harmonized with the existing statute. The state supreme court disagreed, finding an inherent conflict between the two. “By clearly setting out some exceptions to the minimum wage law and not others,” the amendment supplants the exceptions set forth in the statute, including the taxicab driver exemption, it found.

Conflicting exemptions. The amendment “expressly and broadly” defines the term employee to mean any person who is employed–except for individuals who are under 18 years of age, working for a nonprofit doing after-school or summer work, or working as a trainee (for no more than 90 days). These very specific exemptions from the amendment’s definition of employee “necessarily and directly conflict with the legislative exception for taxicab drivers,” and it “necessarily implies” that all employees not exempted from the amendment–including cab drivers– must be paid the minimum wage. Thus, the statute, and its exceptions from the minimum wage mandate, were “impliedly repealed” by the amendment.
“An alternative construction that would attempt to make the Minimum Wage Amendment compatible with NRS 608.250, despite the plain language of the Amendment, would run afoul of the principle of constitutional supremacy,” the high court majority reasoned, adding that statutes “are construed to accord with constitutions, not vice versa.”

Divining voter intent. The cab companies also argued, but offered no basis for its contention, that Nevada’s voters only intended to raise the minimum wage rate when they voted for the constitutional amendment–they did not intend to create a whole new minimum wage scheme. But it would be impossible to identify every Nevadan who voted in favor of the amendment and to query them as to why, the court said. Moreover, “to seek the intent of the provision’s drafters or to attempt to aggregate the intentions of Nevada’s voters into some abstract general purpose underlying the Amendment, contrary to the intent expressed by the provision’s clear textual meaning, is not the proper way to perform constitutional interpretation.” (Thomas v Nevada Yellow Cab Corp, June 26, 2014, Cherry, M), Case No. 61681.)

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