The term cold shoulder originated with Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott in the early 19th century. A commonly repeated but incorrect origin story says that welcome houseguests were given a hot meal, but those who were not welcome would get a cold shoulder of mutton. But Scott’s use of the phrase had nothing to do with food. He described “shewing o’ the cauld shouther” as a physical gesture, turning the shoulder away from someone in a cold or indifferent manner.
No matter the origin, a federal judge in California recently showed some seriously cold shoulder to an independent contractor seeking ERISA benefits. The case shows the importance of a well drafted complaint in a misclassification lawsuit and highlights an important defense.
Tim Alders worked for YUM! Brands and Taco Bell for 25 years as an independent contractor. He then filed a lawsuit claiming he was misclassified.
He sued under ERISA, alleging that he should have been treated as an employee. He claimed that if he had been treated as an employee, he would have been a “participant” in YUM’s retirement plans, incentive plans, 401(k) plan, and executive income deferral program. Had he been a participant, he would have received financial benefits that he did not receive as a contractor.
Under ERISA, however, civil actions may only be brought by plan participants, beneficiaries, or the Secretary of Labor. ERISA defines a “participant” as “any employee or former employee of an employer . . . who is or may become eligible to receive a benefit of any type from an employee benefit plan which covers employees of such employer . . . or whose beneficiaries may be eligible to receive any such benefit.”
As YUM argued in its motion to dismiss, Alder could not sue under ERISA because he was not a “participant.” Judge Phillip Gutierrez, with a wink and a nod to Joseph Heller, agreed and dismissed the case. The plaintiff never got to argue whether he was misclassified or not.
The decision relied on past rulings, including this synopsis of ERISA law by a different California federal judge: “[U]nder Ninth Circuit authority, a claim that a former employee plaintiff should have been included in a plan, but actually was not included in a plan, does not give [the] plaintiff a ‘colorable claim to vested benefits’ for ERISA standing purposes.”
That’s some serious cauld shouther.
This case is a reminder that there are a lot of ways to defend a misclassification case. The “not a participant” defense is a valuable tool and should be used when appropriate.
But don’t be fooled. This ruling does not mean that a misclassified contractor can never sue for employee benefits. Remember too that this is unpublished case by one district court. Let’s not give it too much weight as precedent. There have been many class actions, some highly publicized, in which in which misclassified contractors took home lots of cash (many millions of dollars) as a result of being denied employee benefits.
One more thing before you go. There’s one easy step that companies should take now, before facing a misclassification lawsuit. Companies should check their plans to make sure the plan eligibility language protects specifically against misclassification claims. This post, featuring a reggae cucumber, provides the magic language you should be including in your plan documents.
If you plan properly, you too can give the cauld shouther.
© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.