Here’s a Tip a Cartoon Cat Would Love: Try This Edit to Your Independent Contractor Agreements

Independent contractor misclassification cat“Whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks!” Yes, boys and girls, I am talking about Felix the Cat, whose magical bag of tricks could be transformed to get him out of any treacherous situation. Don’t you wish you had one of those?

Well, I won’t share mine, but I can offer this tip, which may help you avoid a treacherous situation.

This weekend I was reading a California decision on independent contractor misclassification. (I do other, more fun things in my free time too, so don’t make fun. Ok, you should make fun a little.) While analyzing Right to Control factors, the court ruled that the worst fact for the business was that it could terminate the contractor at will. The ability to terminate a relationship at will, the court ruled, was the “ultimate” form of control! Really? I agree it’s a factor among many, but the “ultimate factor”? Come on.

Anyway, this problem is easily avoided with some creativity. Allow me to reach into my bag of tricks.

If your relationship with a contractor is for an indefinite time period and you rely on work orders to describe each project, consider a one-year term instead. No, not a one-year term with auto-renewals unless the parties give notice. That’s too close to an indefinite term. Allow the one year term to expire. But…

Add a provision that, after the one-year term expires, if you offer a new work order and if the contractor accepts a new work order, then acceptance of that new work order constitutes an agreement to renew the independent contractor agreement for another year.

This variation on the auto-renewal approach requires the parties to take an affirmative act to renew the agreement — the offer and acceptance of a new work order. And this approach also allows you to maintain that the relationship with the contractor is project-by-project (one work order at a time).

The main agreement does not have to be terminable at will. No need for that. If each project is defined by a work order and you’re not satisfied, then don’t offer any new work orders. The agreement itself does not have to be terminated.

If your independent contractor’s tasks are not defined by work orders, then this solution might not work for you. But if your contractor picks up work one work order at a time, this can be a helpful little maneuver.

No guarantees here, but I like this approach better than the indefinite agreement. Contracts of indefinite duration are definitely a negative factor in the Independent Contractor vs. Employee analysis, even though most courts would not be as fixated on that fact as this particular court was.

Now I am going to turn my bag of tricks into a helicopter.

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

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Update: Uber’s Misclassification Cases, Arbitration, and the Supreme Court

Independent contractor vs employee Uber misclassification lawsuit arbitration agreements IMG_1111Remember the children’s game called Red Light, Green Light? One ambitious youngster is selected as the traffic cop, who randomly shouts “red light” or “green light,” requiring all the children to run and stop and start in short bursts that would cause an adult human to tear an ACL.

That’s essentially what’s happening in the big Uber misclassification case that has been pending in California since 2014. The case is called O’Connor v. Uber Technologies and is being overseen by traffic cop / federal judge Edward Chen in San Francisco. If anyone ever gets to the finish line, it will eventually be determined whether Uber drivers are properly classified as independent contractors, rather than employees.

There are lots of Uber cases, but this one is the biggie for now, with potentially a billion dollars at issue. For those keeping score at home, that’s 1,000 times more than Dr. Evil demanded for the return of the Kreplachistan warhead.

In December 2015, the judge approved a class of 240,000 drivers, and allowed the case to proceed toward a trial. Green light! Notably, many of the drivers in the class had signed arbitration agreements preventing them from participating in a class action. The judge, however, ruled that the arbitration agreements were unenforceable. He said that the agreement prevented the drivers from engaging in “protected concerted activity” (participating in a class action lawsuit), a right protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Now wait a minute. We have a chicken and egg problem here. The NLRA only applies to employees. If the drivers are truly independent contractors, the NLRA does not apply, and the validity of the arbitration agreements should not be an issue. Uber filed an immediate appeal, claiming that the agreements are valid and that judge should not have allowed the case to proceed as a class action. (Red light?)

In April 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear Uber’s appeal.

Meanwhile, Judge Chen allowed the case to proceed toward trial, despite the appeal. Green light! But both sides flinched (Red light!), and the case settled for $100 million.

But wait. A judge must approve a class settlement. This judge ruled the settlement was unfair to drivers since the actual recovery in trial could be much greater. (Hey, isn’t that the point of a settlement? The drivers also might have taken home nothing!) Anyway, Green light!

Meanwhile, back at the Ninth Circuit, the appeals court issued an order last week that said, “Hey, everybody wait.” Red light!

The Court of Appeals noted that the U.S. Supreme Court is about to decide whether employee arbitration agreements that waive the right to participate in a class action are permissible, or whether they violate the NLRA. That’s the same issue that led Judge Chen to call “Green light!” in 2015 and certify the class of Uber drivers. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely govern whether the Uber drivers’ arbitration agreements are valid.

On October 2, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on this issue, and a decision is expected in the first half of 2018. The Supreme Court’s decision will have far reaching consequences for all businesses who ask their workers to sign arbitration agreements waiving the right to trial and waiving the right to participate in a class action.  So far, courts around the country have split on this important issue, reaching different conclusions about whether these agreements are allowed. The Supreme Court decision will settle this issue for everybody.

The Supreme Court case, called NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA, will be one of the more significant employment law decisions from the Supreme Court in a long time. You can read more here from SCOTUSblog or here from Baker Hostetler blogs.

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

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Drivers Rack Up Misclassification Settlements, While GrubHub Fights Back

In 1984, the Cars released a sad-sounding song called Drive. I assume it was about a guy longing for a girl, but it’s too depressing to listen to the whole thing. Throughout the song, Ric Ocasek asks “Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?” (Why the long face, Ric? Kidding.)

If you use a ride hailing service, chances are it’s an independent contractor driver who’s gonna drive you home. But in several high profile lawsuits, drivers have challenged their independent contractor status. While these suits have been in the news for years, there have been a recent flurry of high dollar settlements. Earlier this year, Lyft agreed to pay $27 million to a class of 95,000 drivers in California and Door Dash agreed to pay $5 million. Just last week, Postmates agreed to pay $8.75 million.

Notably, none of these settlements resolved the issue of whether drivers for these companies are employees or independent contractors. The settlements involved payouts and agreed-upon changes in company policies, but none of the drivers were reclassified as employees.

GrubHub, on the other hand, has taken a misclassification case to trial. The case being tried is not a class action, and only about $600 is at issue. But the case may have significant ramifications for the status of independent contractor driviers, both at GrubHub and potentially elsewhere, and the case is being watched closely. (You can read more here and here.) As of this morning (9/18/17), the case is still in trial and there has been no verdict.

The point to remember is that companies who use an independent contractor model face a substantial risk of being sued. Plaintiffs’ lawyers are aggressive in recruiting contractors to file lawsuits that challenge their status as independent contractors, arguing that they should be paid as employees instead.

Companies using a contractor model should be proactive. Take steps to evaluate these relationships now. Adjust the facts and contract language to best position your business to defend against a misclassification challenge.

Independent contractor misclassification litigation is active and should be watched closely — unlike the Cars, who broke up in 1988 (for the most part, anyway; you can read more here in the unlikely event you care about the current status of the Cars).

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

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California May Tip The Scales, When It Comes to Tipping Independent Contractor Drivers

IMG_1078Should ride-hailing services (like Uber and Lyft) be required to offer a tip option if you pay by credit card? A proposed California law says yes.

A.B. 1099, passed by the California Assembly and headed to the State Senate, would require modification of these mobile apps to support credit card tipping. The bill, in its current form, takes no position as to whether these drivers are independent contractors or employees, instead calling them “workers,” but the proposed law is another attempt to legislate controls on the gig economy, rather than letting free market forces play out.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a posiiton on the bill, and it may or may not survive in the California Senate.

California has been a hotbed of litigation for ride-hailing and delivery driving companies, and this latest development shows that State Governments are not afraid to further constrain how companies that use independent contractor drivers run their businesses.

In fact, we saw similar scale-tipping recently in Florida (see blog post here), but that was in an effort to protect ride hailing companies and these companies’ efforts to protect the classification of their drivers as independent contractors.

Keep an eye out for more legislation, especially at the state level, in an attempt to recalibrate the market forces that have brought us the gig economy.

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

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Boom? Is the California Supreme Court About to Blow Up the Test for Independent Contractor Relationships?

california-independent-contractor-dynamex-boomThe California Supreme Court may be about to rewrite the test for Who Is My Employee? under California wage and hour law.

Independent contractor relationships that have stood the test of time may be in jeopardy.  And I don’t mean the (mildly?) entertaining Alex Trebek kind of Jeopardy. We’re talking real economic upheaval and uncertainty — worse than Schwarzenegger taking over Celebrity Apprentice.

Here’s the issue: Continue reading