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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Misclassification settlement strips $6 million from Club Assets

IMG_1090When I was an undergrad at Michigan, any time I would drive to the airport or to Tiger Stadium, I’d see billboards for Deja Vu, a strip club with (apparently) lots of locations. I never visited (not into that sort of thing, thanks for asking), and I never thought much of it. I certainly did not expect to be writing about Deja Vu and independent contractor misclassification 25 years later. But here goes.

When patrons of these fine establishments partake in the traditional lap dance, it’s doubtful they’re thinking about whether these often-single-mom “entertainers” who are just trying to make a living have been properly classified under wage and hour law. More likely, they’re thinking about — never mind.

But that’s an important issue, as Deja Vu recently learned, when it was sued by a class of 28,177 dancers alleging they were misclassified as independent contractors, rather than paid as employees. The class alleged that the clubs intentionally misclassified them as contractors, failed to pay them minimum wage, unlawfully required them to split gratuities, and unlawfully deducted wages through rents, fines, and penalties.

After a fairness hearing in federal court in Detroit, the parties finalized a $6.55 million dollar settlement. In addition to cash compensation, the settlement includes an unusual provision allowing dancers to choose whether to be contractors or employees.

Dancers will receive between $443 and $6,007 each. Their lawyers will enjoy a payout of $1.2 million in fees, which could buy them a lot of — never mind.

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

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Franchises Continue to Fight Joint Employment Claims

IMG_1074.JPGAre franchisors responsible for the wage and hour violations of their individually owned franchisees?

This question continues to vex the courts. (Vex! Great Scrabble word!) Despite the promise of more pro-business policies from the current administration, lawsuits filed by employees against franchisors show no signs of slowing down. Here’s why.

When employees allege wage and hour violations against individually owned franchisees (your local store), such as a failure to properly pay overtime, the employees usually try to convert that lawsuit into a class action.

For plaintiffs’ law firms bringing these lawsuits, the bigger the class, the better. Storewide is good; statewide is better; nationwide is best. If we colonize Mars, interplanetary class actions are sure to follow.

In an effort to find the deepe$t pocket$ and create the largest possible class, plaintiffs’ firms often sue not only the individual stores that had the allegedly unlawful practice, but also the national franchisor — even if the franchisor had little or no control over local pay practices.

Court are then asked to evaluate the role that franchisors play in the day-to-day operations of individually owned franchised locations.

Franchisors argue that they are allowed to establish and enforce brand standards to ensure consistency of products across the country. A roast beef sub in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico should taste the same as a roast beef sub in Walla Walla, Washington.

Plaintiffs, on the other hand, generally point to franchisors’ corporate manuals and national standards as evidence of an employer-employee relationship between the national franchisor and employees of the individually owned store.

These battles continue to wage throughout the country, with large national franchisors being sued. Some courts have sided with franchisors, finding that the need to establish uniformity of product and appearance is the very nature of what a franchise is — rather than being evidence of joint employment. Other courts have been more sympathetic to plaintiffs and have allowed franchisors to be drawn into the fray.

Companies using a franchise model can proactively reduce the risks of joint employment by carefully deliniating what they can and cannot control, with respect to the operation of individually owned stores. Thoughtful planning can help franchisors to avoid lawsuits ot to mount a successful defense against class certification.

The franchise model remains under attack. Franchisors should plan accordingly and act preemptively to best position themselves to avoid or defend these types of claims.

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

Court Rejects Mandatory Arbitration for Independent Contractor Truckers

truck independent contractor arbitrationArbitration agreements can be an effective way to manage disputes with independent contractors. The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) and Supreme Court decisions support arbitration as an efficient way to resolve disputes outside of the courtroom.

But what happens when an independent contractor with an arbitration agreement claims to have been misclassified as an employee? Can these disputes be forced into arbitration?

Usually yes, but this blog post by my colleague, John Lewis, highlights the limitations of arbitration agreements when applied to transportation workers. Although federal public policy — as articulated in the FAA — generally favors arbitration as a way to resolve disputes, Section 1 of the FAA lists a few situations where the FAA does not apply. One type of excluded dispute is over “contracts of employment” with transportation workers.

Are independent contractor agreements with owner-operator truckers “contracts of employment” with transportation workers? Continue reading

Independent Contractor vs. Employee, Hit List by Industry, 2016-2017

img_1044Are you on the hit list?

The highest concentration of independent contractor misclassification lawsuits during the past 12 months seem to be in these areas:

  • Agricultural workers
  • Beauty consultants (sales)
  • Cable installers
  • Car services (passengers, ride-hailing services)
  • Computer programmers
  • Construction workers
  • Consultants (various industries)
  • Couriers
  • Delivery drivers (food, goods, freight)
  • Exotic dancers (strippers)
  • Freelance writer/reporters/other journalism
  • Information technology workers
  • Installers (cabinets, appliances, windows, furniture)
  • Insurance sales representatives
  • Janitorial franchise owners (individuals)
  • Maintainance workers
  • Newspaper carriers
  • Performers (actors, cheerleaders, wrestlers)
  • Physicians
  • Property inspection services
  • Repair technicians
  • Sales representatives
  • Travel agents
  • Truck drivers
  • Yoga instructors

This list should not in any way suggest that the categories of workers in this list should be employees. That determination will depend on the facts in any given situation. All of these types of workers, however, have been plaintiffs in recent lawsuits alleging that they were misclassified as independent contractors and should have been deemed employees.

Companies who retain these types of workers as independent contractors should take proactive steps to evaluate the facts in these relationships, particularly under the variety of federal and state law tests that may apply. Companies should also remember that because different tests apply to different laws, workers may be properly classified as independent contractors under some laws and some tests, but may be deemed employees under other laws and other tests.

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

Joint Employment Tests Are All Wrong, Says Federal Appeals Court

Fourth Circuit Adopts More Liberal Joint Employment Test Than NLRB’s Browning-Ferris Decision

IMG_1045(This article originally appeared in Corporate Counsel on March 1, 2017. Click here to view the original.)

Are 59 years of joint employment rulings all wrong? Yes, says a federal appeals court in a landmark Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) decision issued in late January.

Relying on a 1958 Department of Labor (DOL) regulation, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has rewritten the test for joint employment, defining the concept so expansively that every outsourced and staffing agency relationship might be deemed joint employment under the FLSA. The decision in Salinas v. Commercial Interiors, issued unanimously by a three-judge panel (all Obama appointees), takes a more radical position on joint employment than even the NLRB took in its controversial 2015 Browning-Ferris decision.

The Court of Appeals concludes that everybody – including the DOL itself – has been misinterpreting the DOL’s joint employment regulation for 59 years.

Is that possible? Can the Court literally mean that? Or is this an example of the adage, “bad facts make bad law”? The facts in Salinas suggest there was probably a joint employment relationship under any test. It remains to be seen how this test will be applied and whether decades of court decisions and DOL guidance will truly be disregarded.

Meanwhile, employers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia are immediately and directly impacted, since these are the states that the Fourth Circuit covers.

What Happened?

Continue reading