A New Smell: Ninth Circuit Rejects ABC Test for Determining Joint Employment

Joint employment dogsWhere I play tennis, there’s a lake with a beach that is open all summer. Like most places in the Midwest, it closes for the season on Labor Day. The weekend after Labor Day, they open it up for everyone to bring their dogs to run around, jump off the high dive (I wish!), and sniff each other’s butts. Because dogs are not typically allowed at the lake, these dogs are unfamiliar with each other, so there’s even more butt-sniffing than you might normally see at a canine networking event. 

My daughter captured this gem of a photo — a five-dog sniffing train.

An unfamiliar smell wafted our way from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week too. And this was a more pleasant scent for California businesses than usual.

The case was a joint employment case involving a franchisor. A local franchisee was accused of miscalculating overtime and failing to provide sufficient meal and rest breaks. The plaintiff-employees settled with the franchisee but continued to go after the deeper pockets, the franchisor. They made several arguments.

Two were of the most interest to me.

First, they argued that the Dynamex ABC Test should be used to determine whether the franchisee’s employees were also the franchisor’s employees. The Court rejected this argument, holding that the Dynamex ABC Test applies only to the question of whether someone is an independent contractor or an employee. To determine whether someone is a joint employee, a different test is used.

Second, they argued that under California’s broad definition of employ, the franchisor “permitted” the franchisee’s employees to work and therefore was a joint employer and jointly liable for the franchisee’s mistakes.

The Ninth Circuit rejected that argument too. To determine whether someone is a joint employer under California wage and hour law, the Court said you look at three alternative definitions of employ: control, “suffer or permit to work,” and the common law S.G. Borello balancing test. If any of these three tests is met, there’s joint employment. The “suffer or permit to work” definition is the broadest and is the one that is most likely to tag a company with joint employer status.

The Court determined that even that broadest of definitions could not be met. The franchisor had no control over day-to-day operations, hiring, firing, scheduling, or worker pay.

For California businesses, the key takeaways from this case are (1) that the ABC Test is used only to determine independent contractor misclassification, not to determine joint employment, and (2) that the test for joint employment is relatively easy to meet but it’s not automatic, even for a franchisor.

The Court acknowledged that the nature of a franchisee-franchisor relationship necessarily involves franchisor control over the product, but that does not mean it controls the employees. It is the franchisor’s relationship with the franchisee’s employees that must be looked at to determine whether there is joint employment.

We have seen plenty of decisions from of the federal and state courts in California that have threatened to expand joint employment and threatened the franchise business model. But this decision smells good, even if a bit unexpected — like an unfamiliar but friendly dog at the beach.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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