Lying down in the face of a challenge is rarely a good strategy. I did, however, find one exception.
A man from Montenegro recently won the 12th Annual Lying Down Championships, beating out nine other competitors by remaining horizontal under a tree for 60 hours. As a reward for his (lack of) effort, he received 350 euros, lunch for two at a restaurant, a weekend stay at a local village, and a rafting trip.
Then things got weird. Local media reported that shortly after the competition, the winner was taken into police custody for (allegedly) physically attacking journalists and damaging the headquarters of a newspaper that called him “the biggest swindler in all of Montenegro.”
I suppose there’s a lesson in here somewhere: Offer a man an award and he’ll lie still for 60 hours, but call him a swindler and he won’t take that lying down.
But I digress. In this post, I want to share some tips gleaned from a recent New Jersey Supreme Court case involving prong C of the ABC Test. The case also serves as a reminder never to take a misclassification audit lying down.
The dispute involved East Bay, a drywall installation company that used independent contractor drywall installers for residential jobs. Until 2013, the company treated its installers as employees. It then switched to an independent contractor model. Risky move. This sparked an audit.
The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development wanted to know why this company, which was still active, suddenly lacked employees. The audit looked at the individuals who continued to install drywall and examined whether, under New Jersey’s ABC Test, they were independent contractors or employees.
You can guess what happened next. The Department found that 16 installers were misclassified, and it issued a hefty back assessment against the company for failing to pay into the state unemployment fund. The company appealed and lost.
The New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion focused largely on what it takes to prove prong C of the ABC Test — that the individual “is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business.” (You can read more about New Jersey’s ABC Test here, but otherwise I am going to assume that readers are familiar with the basic concept of the ABC Test.)
The drywall company put forth evidence that the independent contractors had registered business entities and certificates of insurance. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that wasn’t enough to satisfy prong C. This evidence wasn’t enough to prove that the individuals truly operated independently. Evidence in support of prong C should demonstrate that the independent contractor would not become unemployed if the work from this company went away.
The Court gave some examples of evidence that would have been more persuasive in satisfying prong C, including:
- That the IC’s business will continue when this engagement ends;
- That the IC’s business is stable and lasting, or other evidence of longevity;
- That the IC has other customers;
- That the IC has other sources of revenue, and the company being audited is not the primary source of income for the IC;
- That the IC provides the tools, equipment, vehicles, and other resources needed to perform the work;
- That the IC has telephone listings or business stationery;
- That the IC advertises;
- That the IC has its own employees;
- That the IC maintains inventory;
- That the IC bears the risk of loss;
- That the IC benefits from the goodwill generated from a job well done;
- That the IC is required to maintain educational and licensure requirements;
- That the IC is permitted to obtain work from other businesses; and
- That the IC in fact performs work for other businesses.
The court cited these as examples of the types of evidence that would have been helpful to prove prong C. This is not a mandatory list. The point here was just that business registrations and certificates of insurance were not enough. Strategically, there is other evidence that would be helpful too, and there are steps that can be taken when retaining ICs to help build a defense. I maintain a longer list but, hey, I can’t give away all the secrets here.
Other observations from the New Jersey Supreme Court decision:
1. How to invite an audit. Switching from an employee model to an independent contractor model is, by itself, enough to prompt an audit.
2. An ominous footnote about prong B. There was also a dispute in this case over the meaning of prong B. Remember, New Jersey has a standard ABC Test, which allows prong B to be satisfied by showing either the work is outside the hiring party’s usual course of business or the work is performed outside of the places of business of the hiring party. (This is different than the California version of the ABC Test.) All drywall installation work was performed at customers’ residences. After the audit, the Commissioner of Labor found (inexplicably) that prong B was not satisfied. It is unclear from the opinion whether that was based on a conclusion that the customers’ residences were East Bay’s places of business or was based on some other fact, such as some kind of work being done at East Bay’s place of business. If the Commissioner believed customer’s residences to be East Bay’s places of business, then it is hard to see how the latter part of prong B could ever be satisfied. But the NJ Supreme Court did not consider prong B in its decision. The Court ruled that prong C was not satisfied, and so it chose not to wade into the morass of prong B.
But there is an ominous footnote. When the Court declined to consider prong B, it noted that in its prior decisions, the place of business meant locations where the hiring party had a “physical plant or conducts an integral part of its business.” That’s consistent with common sense and would exclude a customer’s residence. The Court then, however, invited the Department of Labor to issue regulations explaining how the Department thinks prong B should be interpreted. Yikes!
3. You need to fight unemployment claims by ICs at the initial audit level; you can’t expect a court to save you on appeal. Courts will defer to the findings of an agency if its factual findings have any support in the record, no matter how flimsy. In other words, the agency can be wrong in its overall weighing of the factors, but a court is supposed to affirm the agency’s decision if there’s evidence to support it. Not “a preponderance of evidence” or “ample evidence” or even “sufficient evidence.” Just “evidence.” Folks, the reason we have trials is because there’s almost always at least some evidence on both sides, even if the preponderance of the evidence leans the other way. You shouldn’t have to pitch a shutout to win the game.
I have seen the same deference standard applied to unemployment decisions in New York and Ohio. The courts defer to the agencies. It is unfair. The result can be that the agency’s decision gets affirmed, even if it made the objectively wrong decision.
This unfair standard highlights how important it is to win at the earliest stages in an unemployment claim, if independent contractor status is being challenged. The initial investigation is your best chance to defend independent contractor status. If you wait, it’s too late. Provide the auditor your best evidence on every factor, and don’t hold back.
Remember the consequences too. If one contractor is misclassified, the agency will likely deem all other similarly situated contractors to be misclassified, and you’ll be on the hook for unpaid assessments for all of them. The stakes are high. Companies using independent contractors should spend the time and money to mount a full defense of their contractor’s status at the audit stage. It’s worth the investment, especially because the state courts will generally defer to the agency’s findings, even if the agency is wrong.
Here’s the ultimate takeaway: If you’ve entered a Lying Down Competition, it’s ok to lie down for as long as you want. But if you’re faced with a worker classification audit, or a 1099 audit, or an unemployment claim by a former independent contractor, do not take that lying down.
You need to fight hard in the audit, producing evidence to support independent contractor status. You’ll have the right to appeal if you lose, but don’t expect a fair chance to prove your case. You’ve got to do your best to win any classification dispute at the initial audit. That’s the time to retain counsel and invest time and resources. If you lose the audit and bring an appeal, you’re fighting a steep uphill climb.
© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.