For businesses using independent contractor vendors, misclassification claims are usually well-suited for class certification. A plaintiff’s path toward certifying a class can be relatively smooth when all vendors of a particular kind are treated as contractors. The argument goes that if one is misclassified, all are misclassified.
But a new Ninth Circuit ruling may help businesses change the path toward class certification into a dead-end road.
Click here to read the rest of the post, originally published on BakerHostetler’s Employment Class Action Blog.
Last week I read that Sirhan Sirhan had been denied parole again. No surprise there. But what captured my attention was his attorney’s comment that there was not “one iota” of evidence he would be a threat to society if released.
Not even one iota? Why are there never any iotas? And what is the plural of iota anyway? And how do you even respond to that? Well, actually, we had a few iotas. Let me check my notes here. Yes, three iotas.
“Iota” means an infinitesimal amount. Synonyms include bupkus and diddly-squat. But if you search for “iota” online, no one ever has any iotas. The word is always used in the negative.
Well here are a few iotas for you. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases that will affect when arbitration agreements with independent contractors can be enforced. The Supreme Court generally gets involved when there are at least a few iotas of good arguments on both sides.
Both cases address the scope of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which creates a presumption that arbitration agreements should be enforced, but includes a few iotas of carveouts.
In the first case, Viking River Cruises v. Moriana, the Supreme Court will determine whether cases brought under California’s Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) are subject to arbitration. California courts have said they are not.
In the second case, Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon, the Court will address the scope of the Section 1 exemption, which makes the FAA inapplicable to certain types of transportation workers in interstate commerce. The Saxon decision is likely to clear up the mass confusion (and circuit split) over whether last mile delivery drivers and local rideshare fall within the exemption.
In the political arena, arbitration agreements have come under fire, and there is a movement among Democrats to abolish mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, appears more likely to enforce the contracts as written, deferring to the contractual intent of the parties and interpreting any exemptions to the FAA narrowly.
There is more than one iota of evidence to support both sides of these disputes. But expect some 6-3s.
If I am pulling out my crystal ball, I expect the Supreme Court will uphold the arbitration agreements, at least in Saxon. Moriana is tougher to predict since PAGA is a state law creation in which the individual bringing the claim acts as a private attorney general, bringing the claim on behalf of the state. On one hand, the state never agreed to arbitrate. But on the other hand, the individual bringing the PAGA claim did agree to arbitrate any disputes, not to bring them in court under the guise of PAGA.
Whenever the Court rules, we’ll see arbitration agreements back in the news. More visibility on this issue will mean louder and more urgent calls from politicians to abolish pre-dispute arbitration agreements.
We can expect many iotas of news on arbitration agreements later in 2022.
Sometimes it seems as if you just can’t win. Take the case of this man in southern Brazil, who late last month was attacked by a group of bees while fishing with two friends. The man successfully escaped the bees by jumping into the lake — only to be eaten alive by piranhas.
Employers in California, you know what I mean, right? It seems like any way you turn, the laws of California will get you.
Well today I write with good news. There is still hope.
In a joint employment case brought under California law, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed Costco a win, ruling that Costco is not a joint employer of the supplier sales reps who ask you to taste that new brand of salsa, even under the strict rules of California Labor Code section 2810.3.
California has two flavors of joint employment: Spicy and Extra Spicy.
Extra spicy is Labor Code section 2810.3. It makes joint employment automatic when a “labor contractor” supplies workers to provides services within the client’s “usual course of business.” The workers at issue here were paid by a staffing agency and sent to Costco locations to offer samples of suppliers’ products on a consignment basis. The Court of Appeals ruled that was not part of the “usual course” of Costco’s business, so section 2810.3 did not apply.
Regular spicy is the Martinez v. Combs test. It says that an entity is a joint employer under California law if it (1) exercises control over wages, hours, or working conditions, or (2) “suffers or permits” the individual to work, or (3) “engages” the individual, meaning creates a common law employment relationship, not that you should have put a ring on it.
The Court gave Costco a pass here too, ruling that it didn’t do any of these three things either.
This case is a good reminder that it’s still possible for a companies to win joint employment claims in California. The key is to structure those relationships correctly and ensure you have robust contracts with suppliers of labor. For contracting tips, remember the Monster with Three Eyes.
All is not lost, even in California. Turns out that even the guy in Brazil might have had a chance. His two fishing buddies made it out of the lake alive.
Florence Ford was terrified of storms and, seeing as how she was born in 1861, none of the weather apps on her phone were working yet. Her mother Ellen provided comfort when the rains came. So naturally, when Florence died at age 10, Ellen felt she still needed to comfort her daughter when it rained.
In Natchez, Mississippi, you can visit one of the oddest graves in the world. Ellen fitted her daughter’s coffin with a small window and built stairs down to the casket. When it poured in Natchez, Ellen would head down to the casket and provide much-needed comfort to Florence’s bones.
Ellen couldn’t quite accept the reality of Florence’s death and tried to create an exception. In her version of death, reading or singing to the corpse still brought comfort to her daughter — or maybe just to herself.
A less creepy version of dueling realities continues to play out in California, as the legislature keeps reviving exceptions from the harshness of the ABC Test it adopted in AB 5.
The state continues to make tweaks. Two recent bills (AB 1506 and AB 1561) adopt these changes:
Extends the temporary exemption for newspaper publishers and distributors who meet certain criteria;
Imposes reporting requirements on publishers and distributors to ensure they are complying with the Borello Test, if they’re exempt from the ABC Test;
Extends the manicurists exemption for three more years (Kudos to the manicurists’ lobby! They nailed it!);
Extends the construction industry subcontractor exemption for another three years;
Amends the data aggregator exemption; and
Modifies the insurance exemption.
This grab bag of edits comes soon after the adoption of AB 2257, last fall, which rewrote AB 5 to change the long list of exemptions.
What’s going on here? The problem is that the ABC Test doesn’t make a lot of sense when you try to apply it across all types of working relationships. That’s why California’s ABC Test statute keeps getting a makeover. After the state legislature codified the ABC Test in September 2019 by passing AB 5, the state has adopted dozens and dozens of exceptions, and as you can see here, the list keeps growing.
Here’s what businesses in California need to remember:
The ABC Tests is still the default test for determining whether an independent contractor is misclassified and should really be an employee.
There are loads of exemptions, many of which are difficult to follow and require compliance with a long list of criteria before they will apply. Check the list of exemptions to see if they apply.
If an exemption applies, it does not mean that independent contractor status is proper. It just means you make the independent contractor vs. employee determination using the Borello balancing test instead of the ABC Test.
The rules keep changing.
If this monsoon of details makes you uncomfortable, it should. Fortunately, today you learned one more way that a person can find comfort in a storm. Thank you Ellen of Natchez.
If background checks were run on bulls, you probably wouldn’t hire Bodacious for rides at your child’s next birthday party. Bodacious has been described by some in the bull riding community as the meanest, most dangerous bull that ever was.
Fortunately, the identity of bulls with a history of violence is readily attainable, probably through some kind of bull riding database available to those in the industry. Or wikipedia.
When it comes to identifying humans with a history of violence, we can run criminal background checks. We do this for employee applicants and often for independent contractors. When using staffing agencies, we ask the agencies to run background checks for their employees before sending them to perform services onsite at our businesses.
Except that a recent Court of Appeal ruling in California may have just broken the criminal background check process throughout the state.
In a case called All of Us or None, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that it violates the California Rules of Court, Rule 2.507(c), for Superior Courts to maintain criminal case databases that are searchable by date of birth or driver’s license number.
If you want to run a criminal background check, you need additional identifying information such as date of birth or driver’s license number. There are thousands of people with identical surnames and similar sounding full names. According to mynamestats.com, there are 81,585 Californians with the surname Gomez, and 5,277 of them are named Maria Gomez. Check out this map to go down a state-by-state rabbit hole. Background check companies need additional identifying information to make sure they’re reporting on the right person.
Rule 2.507(c) says that certain types of information must be excluded from “court calendars, indexes, and registers of actions.” Taking a waaaay-broad interpretation of this rule, the Court of Appeal held that the “excluded” categories can’t be used at all, not even when searching for criminal records. Other “excluded” categories of information include such important differentiators as ethnicity, age, and gender. The Riverside Superior Court, defending the legality of its searchable database, argued that Rule 2.507(c) is intended to prevent people from searching for the excluded information in a database, but it cannot possibly be intended to prohibit searches when the searcher already knows that information.
The Court of Appeal disagreed.
Under federal law, a background check company must maintain reasonable procedures to ensure that the information they report is accurate. Using names alone would obviously produce absurdly unreliable results. Just ask anyone named Maria Gomez. Most Maria Gomezes are undoubtedly wonderful people and don’t want their background check reports to show that some other Bad Maria got into criminal trouble. But if a background check company cannot use important identifying and differentiating information it already knows to help verify someone’s identity and criminal record, how can it provide reliable reports in California at all?
I’m not sure how that’s gonna work. Leave it to California to break the whole background check system. We’ll see if the courts and background check companies find a way around this.
Meanwhile, if you’re running background checks in applicants or independent contractors in California, expect some delays, thanks to this ruling. And if you’re planning to have livestock at your child’s next birthday, may I suggest a pony?
Sometimes injuries can be reasonably expected, sometimes not.
A good example of when injuries can be expected is the annual Bagwal festival in northern India. This year’s festival was described by Indian media as “a low-key affair” with only 77 of the 300 participants sustaining injuries. Wait, what?
At Bagwal, participants divide into four clans and hurl stones at each other to please a deity. According to this report, “The fight continues until a priest determines that enough blood has been shed in honor of the goddess Maa Barahi and demands to stop the fight.”
A good example of when injuries are not expected is when you retain an independent contractor to perform some sort of work on your property. Sometimes there are known hazards on the property. Sometimes there are no reasonable safety precautions that can be taken to minimize the hazard. For example, suppose you retain a contractor to fix a known safety risk.
The question: When an independent contractor gets injured by one of those known hazards, who is liable?
The California Supreme Court recently addressed this question in a case with significant ramifications for business owners, property owners, and independent contractors.
The answer: The contractor is liable, not the property owner — but this assumes the contractor is properly classified as an independent contractor.
The rationale: Like in many states, California law presumes “that a hirer of an independent contractor delegates to the contractor all responsibility for workplace safety.” This doctrine, known in California as the Privette doctrine, means that a hirer is typically not responsible for injuries suffered by an independent contractor.
The Privette doctrine makes sense. It arose out based on four basic assumptions:
Hirers have no right to control an independent contractor’s work.
Contractors can factor in the cost of safety precautions and insurance in the contract price.
Contractors are able to obtain workers’ compensation coverage to cover any on-the-job injuries.
Contractors are typically hired for their expertise, which includes knowing how to perform the contracted work safely.
There are two exceptions:
A hirer may be liable when it exercises control over any part of the contractor’s work and negligently exercises that control in a way that contributes to the injury.
A landowner who hires an independent contractor may be liable if the landowner knew, or should have known, of a concealed hazard on the property that the contractor did not know of and could not have reasonably discovered, and the landowner failed to warn the contractor of the hazard.
In Gonzalez v. Mathis, the court was asked whether a third exception should be recognized when injuries “result from a known hazard on the premises where there were no reasonable safety precautions it could have adopted to avoid or minimize the hazard.”
The court declined to recognize this exception, holding that in this situation, the contractor is liable, not the hirer. Rules may vary in other states.
What should businesses do to protect themselves, in light of this ruling?
Make sure your contractors are properly classified as independent contractors under the applicable legal test. California uses an ABC Test for making this determination. Other California laws, such as Labor Code 2750.5 and 2810.3 complicate the analysis.
Make sure your contractors are licensed and insured. Licensing by the Contractors State Licensing Board is required in California for anyone who contracts to perform work on a project that is valued at $500 or more for combined labor and materials costs.
Do not exercise control over your contractors. Defer to their expertise.
Disclose known hazards, especially those that are not readily visible.
And if you’re looking for repair work to be done at or near a Bagwal festival, don’t forget warn your contractor about the risk of flying stones.
There’s a fight brewing over cockfighting, and it may be headed to the Supreme Court. The dispute is over who can regulate the bloodsport and how. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has joined a cadre of cockfighting enthusiasts to ask the Supreme Court to rule that it’s unconstitutional for the federal government to ban the contests.
In 1933, Puerto Rico changed its laws to allow the sport, in which gamecocks are often fitted with spurs and battle until death or dismemberment. The federal government later stepped in to ban the fights. People bet on this stuff, really. On chickens. Wearing spurs.
Closer to home, another fight is brewing, and it’s on a subject familiar to readers of this blog – Prop 22 in California. Passed in late 2020 through a ballot initiative, Prop 22 exempts app-based drivers from the ABC Test and allows them to maintain independent contractor status, so long as the app companies provide certain types of benefits to drivers.
But on Friday, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that Prop 22 is unconstitutional. Wait, what?
Even though Prop 22 passed with 58% support, the SEIU and a vocal group of drivers weren’t too happy and sued. The matter initially went to the California Supreme Court, but the Court dismissed the petition and said it would not hear the case. The SEIU tried again, this time starting in Superior Court, which is where cases are supposed to start. The union found a sympathetic ear in Judge Frank Roesch, who issued this 12-page opinion, which is confusing, hard to follow, and seems to me to be just plain wrong.
What was the basis for the ruling? Two things.
First, Judge Roesch concluded that Prop 22 was unconstitutional because it limits the legislature’s ability to regulate workers’ compensation. Prop 22 defines app-based drivers as contractors, and contractors don’t get workers comp coverage. The law limits the ability of the legislature to undo Prop 22, which was smart since the legislature hated the bill.
The judge found that these limitations made Prop 22 unconstitutional because the California constitution grants the legislature “plenary” power to oversee workers’ compensation. Prop 22 allows the legislature to make limited amendments to Prop 22 but not to undo the whole thing or reclassify the drivers as employees. In making his ruling, the judge essentially concluded that if the legislature couldn’t undo the law, then the law unduly restricted the legislature. But wait! Just a few pages earlier, the judge conceded that “The term ‘legislature’ in [the California constitution] includes the people acting through the initiative power.” Yes, that’s quite the internal contradiction. If the term “legislature” includes initiatives by the people, then initiatives by the people are the equivalent of legislative action. They are acting as the legislature. An appeals court will likely take care of that confusing mess.
Second, the judge concluded that Prop 22 violated the state constitution’s rule that legislation can only be about one subject. Judge Roesch pointed to the part of Prop 22 that gave app-based drivers the right to collectively bargain in a quasi-union environment. He concluded that the bargaining piece of the law is “utterly unrelated” to the law’s purpose. Huh? That utterly makes no sense. The whole point of Prop 22 was to grant app-based drivers various concessions in exchange for clarity on their status as contractors. These concessions include a minimum rate of pay, contributions to healthcare funds, automobile insurance, and the right to collectively bargain in a specified manner. How could the right to collectively bargain be unrelated to these other rights, all of which were part of the quid pro quo in exchange for preserving independent contractor status? The ruling makes no sense, and this too is likely to be cleaned up on appeal.
So what’s the status of Prop 22? Is it dead? Dismembered? The judge may have tied spurs to his feet and kicked the law around a bit, but I am cautiously optimistic that this law will live to see another day.
The case is now headed to the Court of Appeal, and it may end up back with the California Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, for those of you wagering on whether cockfighting will return to legal status, I’d say the odds are against. I don’t think the Supreme Court will take the case and, if it does, I don’t think the Court will say the federal government lacks the power to regulate chicken gladiator shows. I’d put my money on Prop 22 to survive on appeal. I think Judge Roesch’s analysis is incorrect and will be overturned on appeal. But I can’t say I have the same sense of optimism for our cockfighting aficionado friends.
Have you heard of Schrödinger’s cat? It’s not a real cat, like Felix or Brian Setzer. It’s a hypothetical, seemingly impossible cat that exists only in the world of quantum physics. Schrödinger’s cat refers to a thought experiment in which a cat in a box is simultaneously alive and dead, until you open the box and observe the cat. Then, stubborn as cats are, it will be only one or the other, and that’s when you realize you prefer dogs anyway.
In a ruling last week, the Ninth Circuit has tried to give the trucking industry Schrödinger’s cat.
The issue was whether California’s infamous ABC Test applies to the trucking industry. The answer now is both yes and no, depending on where you look.
If you’re in California, the Ninth Circuit says yes, the ABC Test applies to the trucking industry. Under the ABC Test, now part of California’s Labor Code, most workers are classified as employees, not independent contractors, unless the work they perform is “outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.” (There’s more to the ABC Test, but that’s Part B, the hardest part to meet.)
In the trucking industry, it’s hard to argue that owner-operator truckers retained by a trucking company are performing work that is “outside the usual course” of the trucking company’s business. The ABC Test would likely reclassify most owner-operators as employees. The California Trucking Association brought a lawsuit in 2018, arguing that the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (FAAAA) preempts this California law from being applied to trucking. The FAAAA preempts state laws “relating to a price, route or service of any motor carrier … with respect to the transportation of property.” Cal Trucking argued that applying the ABC Test and reclassifying owner-operators as employees would affect the prices, routes, and services provided.
Last week, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the ABC Test is a “generally applicable” law that does not sufficiently affect prices, routes, or service to be preempted. California’s ABC Test therefore applies to trucking and is not preempted by the FAAAA.
Now remember the cat – both alive and dead?
If you’re in Massachusetts, the answer to the same question is no, the ABC Test does not apply to trucking. In 2016, the First Circuit ruled that the FAAAA preempts Massachusetts’ ABC Test (which is the same as California’s) because of its effect on prices, routes, and service, when applied to trucking.
So what happens now? How can one federal law simultaneously mean two different things?
There are three ways this can play out:
The full Ninth Circuit might rehear the case and could reverse its ruling (which was a 2-1 split) to conform with the First Circuit’s view;
The ruling might stay as it is, meaning that the interpretation of a federal law (the FAAAA) is different in California and Massachusetts, even though their state ABC Tests are the same; or
The Supreme Court will take the case and resolve the circuit split.
I grew up in Miami where they had greyhound racing, which you can bet on. I don’t think there’s anywhere you can go and bet on cats. But if I were a betting man on this one, I’d wager that the Supreme Court weighs in at some point.
The owner-operator model in the trucking industry is so well-established and has been permitted for so long under federal law that it seems impossible for the Supreme Court to allow the FAAAA to mean two different things in two different states.
And what about the rest of the country?
The Third and Seventh Circuits have ruled that the FAAAA does not preempt state wage and hour laws when applied to trucking, but those courts were not considering strict ABC Tests like those reviewed by the First and Ninth Circuits. The ABC Test aims to reclassify most contractors as employees; it is no ordinary wage and hour law. More states are considering adopting strict ABC Tests and, in those states, we don’t know whether the FAAAA would preempt state classification law for truckers or not.
In other words, for most of the country, the cat is both alive and dead, and we won’t know which it is until we look. Unfortunately for tens of thousands of truckers, this is not a mere thought experiment. The disruption to the industry is massive, and the sooner we get a clear answer, the better it will be for everyone. Except maybe the cat.
Sometimes things stop making sense. And I’m not referring to the 1984 Talking Heads album, which included “Psycho Killer,” “Burning Down the House,” and other songs least likely to be used in an episode of Sesame Street.
The California Supreme Court’s ruling today falls in that category. Remember the 2018 Dynamex decision? That’s the one where the Court invented a new ABC Test for deciding whether someone was an independent contractor or an employee under California wage and hour law. Ever since then, companies have been trying to figure out whether that made-up test would apply retroactively. In other words, would California hold companies liable before 2018 for not following a test that did not yet exist until 2018?
After today’s decision in Vazquez v. Jan-Pro, we now know the answer: Of course! It’s California. Even companies not in the fortune telling industry should have known what legal standard the justices were going to invent. And of course it’s fair to hold companies liable for failing to comply with a standard that, before 2018, did not exist anywhere in California law. If Johnny Carson could figure out what was in that envelope (“seersucker“), California business should have been able to figure out what legal test the California Supreme Court would make up in 2018.
The Court reasoned that it’s normal practice for a decision to apply retroactively and said it’s only fair for the decision to apply to everyone retroactively since Dynamex didn’t see it coming either. The Court rejected the common sense notion that it would be unfair to apply the test retroactively, even though courts across California had — for years — applied the multi-factor Borello balancing test when determining employee vs. independent contractor status.
One saving grace may be that the Dynamex decision is now almost three years old, so statutes of limitation for wage and hour claims are running out. Most wage and hour claims in California must be brought within three or four years of the violation, depending on the claim asserted.
I can’t say this decision is surprising. But I couldn’t say the knife-wielding squirrel featured in the last blog post was surprising either. It’s a crazy world out there, folks. Sometimes it’s best to just stay home and watch Veep, which once seemed too outlandish to be believable.
Back before seatbelts were a thing, Sears sold this handy Auto Strap for Front-Seat Tots. Tie your toddler to some part of the car, and drive carefree! What could go wrong?
Ok, things have changed a bit when it comes to driving. Seatbelts and airbags seem to have carried the day. Things have also changed quite a bit in the modern workforce, with the gig economy pushing aside traditional employer-employee work relationships.
Something important just happened to help California gig economy companies, and it’s gone under the radar. Biden named California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his pick for Health & Human Services. Why should gig economy companies care who Biden’s HHS pick is? Because naming Becerra to HHS means Becerra will no longer be California’s Attorney General. And that’s good new because a key part of Becerra’s agenda as State AG had been to knock around gig economy companies as much as possible.
Becerra tried to sabotage Prop 22 by giving it a misleading description on the ballot, but voters saw through it and passed the measure anyway.
Becerra has been the driving force behind California’s lawsuits against ride share companies, trying to force them to reclassify drivers as employees.
But now, assuming he gets confirmed, someone else will take over as California AG. Hopefully it will be someone with less of an anti-gig economy agenda than Becerra. We’ll see. But for now, this pick seems to be good news. I don’t know what he’ll do as HHS Secretary, but I know what he won’t do as HHS Secretary, and that’s to pick fights with companies who help to keep the gig economy strong.
So strap in and let’s see what this new ride will bring. Just be sure to use a seatbelt, not a $1.88 standing harness.