Are Non-Compete Agreements for Independent Contractors Enforceable?

binding-contract-independent contractor non-compete agreement noncompetition - 948442_1920If you could ask me one question about independent contractors and non-compete agreements, what would it be?

  • Are they enforceable?
  • Are they a good idea?
  • A bad idea?

Hey buddy, that’s three questions, not one.

As for enforceability, that will vary state by state. A recent federal decision involving an independent sales contractor found his non-compete agreement to be unenforceable. The court found that (1) it was not reasonably necessary to protect the company’s business, and (2) the burden on the sales contractor was out of proportion to the benefit to the business. The decision applied Iowa law, though, so unless you have contractors in the Hawkeye State, you might not really care.

Each state applies a somewhat different test for determining whether non-competes are enforceable. Some states, like California, will not enforce them at all (at least with respect to employees). Other states are much more likely to allow them.

Perhaps the better question, for those keeping score on Quality of Questions, is whether non-competes with contractors are a good idea.

In many cases, they are not. Non-competes may increase the risk of a misclassification finding. Remember, independent contractors are in business for themselves. In the Independent Contractor vs. Employee analysis, a persuasive factor in favor of contractor status is the freedom to work for others, including for competitors.

In other words, demanding a loyalty pledge from your contractor may backfire. The clause might not only be unenforceable, but it might cause the contractor to be deemed an employee.

There may be situations where a non-compete seems necessary. Perhaps the contractor is given access to confidential and proprietary information. If that’s the case, be sure your contractor signs an NDA. If an NDA is not going to provide enough protection and you need a non-compete clause, then the non-compete provision should be drafted as narrowly as possible. Consider allowing the contractor to work for competitors generally, perhaps prohibiting only certain limited types of competing behavior.

Also consider whether your relationship with the contractor — in which the contractor gains access to confidential information, cannot share it, cannot use it elsewhere, and cannot work for competitors — is properly classified as a contractor relationship at all. If protecting and controlling what the contractor does is so important to your business, the contractor may be more appropriately classified as an employee.

Non-competition agreements with contractors are not necessarily unenforceable, and they are not necessarily a nail in the coffin of misclassification. But any time you are thinking of using a non-compete agreement with an independent contractor, think carefully.

The clause might be unenforceable, which is bad enough, but the existence of the clause itself — whether enforceable or not — could also be considered evidence that the contractor is really an employee.

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

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Can Independent Contractors Form Unions? Seattle Wants to Allow It.

space-needle-independent contrcator drivers seattle uber lyft seattle law ordinanceA legal battle in Seattle (“The Battle of Seattle!”) may soon determine whether independent contractor drivers can form unions. In 2015, the city passed a law allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to organize. The mayor allowed the law to go into effect but didn’t sign it because he was concerned it would spawn expensive litigation. He was right.

This month, a federal judge handed the City a victory, dismissing a lawsuit by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which had argued that the ordinance was illegal. The decision is certainly not the last word on the subject, since the Chamber will appeal and there is a companion lawsuit still pending anyway.

The issues go beyond the basic question of whether independent contractors can form unions.

Generally, they cannot. Independent contractors are separate businesses. Antitrust law generally forbids businesses from banding together and collectively fixing prices and other conditions. You know the drill: Collusion bad, free market good.

The judge ruled that the circumstances here, however, are different than usual. First, it’s worth noting that the “unions” aren’t really unions (despite being overseen by the Teamsters), since unions are for employees and these are representation associations. That seems like word play to me, but everyone’s being careful not to call these things “unions.”

Second, the situation here is not merely that independent contractors are banding together to fix prices. Rather, a local law has established a procedure for ride hailing drivers to collectively share information in a particular format and setting, then negotiate collectively in a government-approved manner. The law enables the activity, not the drivers.

Ok, but what about the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)? Only employees can unionize, right? Well, sort of. The NLRA definitely does not apply to independent contractors.  But, then again, the NLRA definitely does not apply to independent contractors.

So what does that mean? Does the NLRA preempt laws that would allow non-employees to unionize (as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued)? Or does the NLRA’s inapplicability to contractors mean that Congress was indifferent (and silent) as to whether independent contractors could organize? The judge went with Door #2, deciding that the NLRA did not pre-empt the City of Seattle from enacting this ordinance.

The judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the Seattle ordinance did not violate any federal or state laws.

This is a case to watch. If Seattle ultimately succeeds in setting up a way for independent contractors to band together and collectively bargain, the gig economy could be changed fundamentally. Other cities would be sure to follow suit and pass similar laws.

A lot still needs to be sorted out, and this is a case that could eventually be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. An ordinance like this poses a challenge to the scope of federal authority over labor law and antitrust law, both of which are areas where a uniform national policy has generally been considered important to maintain.

Keep an eye on this one. We’ll see if Seattle can hold onto the ball this time, or if the city again throws an errant pass to a wide-eyed Malcolm Butler hiding in the end zone. [Seahawks fans are advised not to click on this link.]

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

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Appeals Court Slams NLRB Joint Employer Finding in Landmark CNN Case, But Ruling May Prove Hollow

NLRB CNN joint employment Browning-Ferris overrule Second Circuit Court of Appeals IMG_1094A federal Court of Appeals has ruled that the NLRB cannot abruptly change its definition of joint employment without sufficient explanation. This decision (the CNN case) rebukes the NLRB for its initial attempt, in 2014, to expand the definition of joint employment.

This decision does not, however, address the Browning-Ferris case that followed in 2015, in which the Board similarly expanded the definition of joint employment but, that time, with an expansive explanation and justification for doing so. Browning-Ferris in on appeal too.

Here’s what happened.

Back in the good old days, when TV was pure and the world had not yet been exposed to Janet Jackson’s halftime nipple, CNN used to contract with an outside company who supplied technicians for its TV production. CNN’s camera operators, sound technicians, and broadcast engineers were employees of a third party, and they were represented by a union.

In late 2003, just a few months before that fateful Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, CNN decided to bring that work in house. It set up a hiring and interview process and then directly hired its own technicians, severing its ties with the third party.

That made the union mad.

The union claimed the decision was motivated by anti-union animus and filed an unfair labor practice charge. The NLRB ultimately agreed with the union, determined that CNN was a joint employer of the third party technicians, and therefore had to respect the union status of the technicians. CNN could not hit the reset button without bargaining.

There was more to the decision too, with findings of anti-union statements by supervisors and a question about whether CNN was a successor employer (which is not the same thing as being a joint employer), but for our purposes, let’s focus on the joint employment piece.

Before the Board’s CNN decision, the legal standard for joint employment under the NLRB (remember, different laws have different standards) required “direct and immediate control.” In the CNN decision, the Board inexplicably abandoned that standard and ruled that two separate entities are joint employers of a single workforce if they “share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment.”

“Share or codetermine” is much looser than “direct and immediate control.” Think of your teenage children. You may try to “share and codetermine” whether they have a party at your house when you are out of town on business, but you have no “direct and immediate control” over the matter. At least not while it happens. (Purely hypothetical. My kids didn’t do this. Kids, if you are reading, DON’T do this!)

This case has been crawling through the courts for years, but finally last week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the NLRB could not simply switch the test without explaining itself. On that basis alone, the Court rejected the conclusion that CNN was a joint employer of the third party technicians.

So what does this mean for Browning-Ferris and the vastly expanded definition of joint employment that the Board instituted in that case?  Unfortunately, nothing.

In contrast to the CNN case, the Board’s Browning-Ferris decision included a lengthy and expansive discussion of the joint employer standard and why the Board — like in Sympathy for the Devil, “saw it was a time for a change.”

The Browning-Ferris case is also on appeal in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (the same appellate court that just issued this decision) but will be heard by a different panel of three judges. A decision in that case is expected in the next several months.

For now, the Browning-Ferris standard — that indirect control is enough to demonstrate joint employment — remains the standard used by the NLRB.

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

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Congress May Rewrite “Joint Employment” Definition

IMG_1092Congress may finally provide some clarity in determining who is a joint employer. In legislation introduced last week, the House proposed a bill that would rewrite the definition of “joint employer” under federal labor law (National Labor Relations Act) and federal wage and hour law (Fair Labor Standards Act).

The Save Local Business Act — despite lacking a fun-to-say acronym — would create a new standard for determining who is a joint employer under these two laws. The proposed new standard would allow a finding of joint employment “only if such person [business] directly, actually, and immediately, and not in a routine and limited manner, exercises significant control over the essential terms and conditions of employment….”

The definition provides examples of what are “essential terms and conditions,” including:

  • Hiring employees;
  • Discharging employees;
  • Determining individual employee rates of pay and benefits;
  • Day-to-day supervision of employees;
  • Assigning individual work schedules, positions, and tasks; and
  • Administering employee discipline.

No longer would a business be deemed a joint employer for exercising indirect or potential control, as permitted by the NLRB in its 2015 Browning-Ferris decision, which is currently on appeal. (Read more about that here.)

The bill would also overrule a recent decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that vastly expanded the scope of joint employment under the FLSA, but only for a handful of Mid-Atlantic states.  Read more on that dreadful decision here.)

As illustrated in this colorful map, the current standard for who is a joint employer varies by which law is being applied and by where you live. The bill, if passed, would provide much-needed clarity in the law — or, at least in some of the laws. The bill would not affect the FMLA, federal anti-discrimination law, or any state or local standards. (In other words, loyal reader, you’ll still need this blog. Ha!)

The bill was introduced by Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), but already shares some bipartisan support, with co-sponsors including Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Luis Correa (D-Calif.).

Here’s the current bill.  It’s short, so don’t be afraid to click.

No one knows whether this proposed law will take effect or will even reach a vote (except perhaps Carnac the Magnificent!).  But we can expect significant support from the business community, which may create some momentum toward consiuderation and passage. The National Association of Home Builders has already issued a press release praising the proposed legislation.

If Congress wants to make a positive impact on businesses large and small, this bill could do it. So now let’s all sit back and watch how they screw it up.

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

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What are “1099 Employees”?

chupacabra news independent contractor 1099 employee

The chupacabra is a heavy creature, reportedly the size of a small bear, with a row of spines reaching from the neck to the base of the tail. Its name means “goat-sucker,” which comes from its habit of attacking livestock, especially goats, and sucking their blood. [Editor’s note: Please, folks, protect your goats.]

Why am I leading this post with information about the chupacabra?

[SPOILER ALERT:] Because it’s not real. Not a thing. Doesn’t exist.

Same with “1099 employees.” Businesses using this term almost certainly are trying to classify these individuals as independent contractors. As we know, independent contractors (if properly classified) are not employees at all. Business must report the compensation of employees on a Form W-2, not Form 1099.

When businesses describe independent contractors using terms like “1099 employee,” they are raising red flags, suggesting possible independent contractor misclassification — almost begging for an audit!

As we discussed here, what you call your contractors can make a big difference in determining whether they are truly independent contractors or should instead be classified as employees under the law.

Remember, the determination of Who Is My Employee? — that is, employee vs. independent contractor — is made based on legal standards, not how the parties decide to classify their relationship. You can call your pet three-toed sloth “Usain Bolt,” but that doesn’t mean he’s fast. (I’m sure he’s cute, but he’s not fast.)

So please don’t call your independent contractors “1099 employees.” Or we’ll send the chupacabras after you and your goats.

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

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NYC Freelancer Law & New Rules Now In Effect, But New Rules Could Violate Federal Law

new york city freelancer law new rulesIf you retain freelancers in New York City, pay attention.

As we wrote here, NYC’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act requires a written agreement when retaining an individual independent contractor, if the value of services is $800 or more. The law covers any individual non-employee, including nannies and babysitters. (Loyal readers, please read this earlier post for details.)

The law took effect May 15, 2017, but new rules — effective July 24, 2017 — create additional burdens.

The NYC Department of Consumer Affairs has published final rules implementing the Act. While the purpose of the rules is (supposedly) to clarify the Act, the Rules go much further and create new requirements — some of which may be contrary to federal law.

For example, the Rules prohibit class action waivers and prohibit arbitration agreements. That’s not in the original law. It also may be against federal law. As the Supreme Court recently ruled, state laws that prohibit arbitration of certain types of claims are in violation of the Federal Arbitration Act. (The Supreme Court will soon decide whether class action waivers in employee arbitration agreements are impermissible under the National Labor Relations Act, but that’s an entirely different issue, which requires the court to reconcile two federal laws — as opposed to conflicting federal and state/local laws. Read more here.)

The Rules also provide an absurdly expansive definition of retaliation, including creating an automatic violation for “any person who denies a work opportunity to a freelance worker who exercises or attempts to exercise any right guaranteed under the Freelance Isn’t Free Act ….” Note what’s missing here:  the word “because.”

Unless this is a drafting error (which is very possible), the Rules say it’s retaliation if you stop working with a freelancer after the freelancer complains or exercises certain rights — even if the decision to stop using the freelancer had nothing to do with the protected activity. I suspect the Rule will be interpreted as if there is a causation requirement, but Rules really should be drafted more carefully. The whole point of writing Rules that interpret laws is to add clarity, not add confusion!

The Rules also say:

  • The Act applies regardless of the worker’s immigration status;
  • Retaliation, which is prohibited, can include perceived threats to the worker’s immigration status or work authorization;
  • Anyone who retains a nanny or babysitter for at least three years must provide the freelancer with free tickets to Hamilton.

Ok, I made up that last bullet point.

The rest of this is true, though; so if you are using individual freelancers in New York City, pay attention. These requirements apply to businesses retaining freelancers and to individuals retaining freelancers.

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

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Map Shows Joint Employment Tests Are a Mess!

IMG_8284The tests for determining whether a business is a joint employer vary, depending on which law applies. That means there are different tests under federal labor law, wage and hour law, and employee benefits law, to name a few. There are also different tests under different states’ laws.

Further complicating the analysis, there are even different tests when applying the same law — depending on where you live.

Yes, you read that right. Even though the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal wage and hour law that applies across the country, federal courts in different states use different methods for determining whether a business is a joint employer under that single law.

Same for Title VII. Although this federal anti-discrimination law applies to businesses coast-to-coast, a business can be deemed a joint employer under Title VII on the West Coast and not on the East Coast. Or vice versa. Or yes in Virginia, but no in Pennsylvania. Huh?

We’ve discussed this complication in other posts — such as here and here — but not in graphic form.  Thanks to Richard Heiser, who is in the Legal Department at FedEx Ground, we now have this beauty!

(Heiser testified recently before a Congressional committee on the need for legislation to clear up the confusion.)

The map shows that, depending on where in the U.S. you live, the test for determining whether you are a joint employer varies under the FLSA (color) and under Title VII (pattern).

The map illustrates quite nicely how difficult it is for multi-state employers to determine whether they have responsibilities as a joint employer or not. Editor’s Note: Alaska and Hawaii are not to scale. All U.S. maps are required to say that under federal law. Or not, depending on where you live.

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

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