Court Rules that New Jersey is a Goat (sort of): a Note on Forum Selection Clauses

goat independent contractor misclassification forum selection clause Mary Kay caseThe Monty Hall puzzle is a brain teaser based on the game show, Let’s Make a Deal. The contestant is presented with three doors and must choose one. Choose the correct door and win a car. Choose either of the wrong doors and win a goat. (Note to rural readers: The puzzle is a first-world conundrum and assumes you’d prefer the car.)

Once the contestant chooses, the host opens one of the doors with a goat and asks the contestant whether he wants to stay with his original choice or choose the other unopened door. As explained here, the contestant should always switch doors, since switching provides a 2/3 chance to win. The math here is not intuitive, but read about it and you’ll understand.

The gimmick relies on the fact that the host knows what’s behind each door and will only reveal a door that hides a goat. The host never reveals a car.

When drafting multi-state independent contractor agreements, be the host, not the contestant. You want to know what’s behind each door and choose knowingly — and that leads us to choice-of-law and forum selection clauses.

One of the lessons reiterated throughout this blog is that the tests for Who Is My Employee? (i.e., Independent Contractor vs. Employee) vary substantially among the states. Some state laws are much more favorable for businesses than others. Massachusetts and California, for example, are the goats.

Businesses that use independent contractor agreements across multiple states should consider the advantages of inserting a forum selection clause and choice of law provision. Know what’s behind each possible door and then select, in advance, which state’s law will apply and where any lawsuit between the parties must be brought. If these terms are in an Independent Contractor Agreement, courts will generally (but not always) defer to the parties’ contractual agreement, so long as the selected state has some reasonable connection to the parties’ relationship and is not contrary to the state’s public policy. (Sorry, you can’t pick Hawaii just because you like pineapples.)

A recent case out of New Jersey demonstrates the usefulness of these clauses.

A group of New Jersey independent contractor beauty consultants attempted to sue Mary Kay, alleging independent contractor misclassification and violations of New Jersey wage law. They filed the lawsuit in New Jersey, which the plaintiffs’ bar likens to a shiny new Escalade. Mary Kay, however, sees New Jersey as a goat and knew ahead of time that New Jersey was a goat. On the well-known Car vs. Goat Continuum (ed. note: not actually well known at all), New Jersey employment laws are relatively pro-employee. The company therefore included in its Independent Contractor Agreement the requirements that any litigation be brought in Texas, that Texas law applies, and that any complaint must be recited aloud in court using a voice imitating Ross Perot, circa 1992. (The last part might be unenforceable.)

In response to the lawsuit, Mary Kay pointed to the contract and asked the court to move the case to the Lone Star State. Despite the plaintiff’s protests, the court honored the contract and sent the case southward. The plaintiff appealed that decision but lost. The Court of Appeals ruled that it was proper, under the circumstances, to honor the choice of law and forum selection clauses and to move the case to Texas.

Businesses using independent contractors across multiple states should strongly consider inserting choice of law and forum selection clauses into their contracts. (Arbitration agreements can be an even better option, but that’s for another post.)

Avoid the goats. They’ll eat anything, including your cash.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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