Don’t be a goat: Know the joint employment law before going to trial

Joint employment goatI took a picture of this goat right before it tried to eat a small paper cup. The paper cup had food in it, but the paper cup was not the food. This confusion is understandable because, well, it’s a goat. The bar is set low for a goat.

The bar needs to be set higher when retaining counsel to defend against claims of joint employment. A recent California case shows what happens when your lawyer doesn’t understand the proper test for joint employment.

In the lawsuit, a staffing agency employee had been retained to work in a supervisory role as a line lead in a production department. We’ll call the place where she worked the “contracting company.” The worker was accused of bullying, then she accused another worker of harassment, and the contracting company terminated its her relationship with her. We don’t know whether the staffing agency terminated her direct employment, but that’s not important for now. The point is that the contracting company terminated its relationship with her.

She then sued the contracting company for having terminated her role there, accusing the contracting company of sexual harassment and retaliation. Because her direct employer was the staffing agency, she would have to prove that the contracting company was her joint employer. That’s because you can only allege employment discrimination claims against an employer. In other words, to bring a claim of employment discrimination against the contracting company, she had to prove that she was an employee of the contracting company.

Under California anti-discrimination law, a right to control test is used to determine whether a business is a joint employer. The test looks at how much control the business had over how the worker did her work. Because she was a line lead and a supervisor for the contracting business, there were plenty of facts that could support a finding of joint employment.

The lawyers for the contracting business either didn’t understand the joint employment test or they knew their goose was cooked, so they tried a different approach. Instead of arguing that the contracting business did not have a right to control her work, they argued that the jury should look at who had more control — the staffing agency or the contracting business. They argued that the staffing agency hired her and paid her, so it must have had more control over the essential terms of her employment. The staffing agency, they argued, was therefore her real (and only) employer.

The jury bought this argument, finding that the contracting company was not a joint employer because it exerted less control than the staffing agency.

But this argument was too clever by half. That’s not the test. So last week, a California Court of Appeals reversed the judgment, sending the case back for a new trial. You’ve got to use the proper test.

The test for joint employment is not about who had the most control. It’s just about who had the right to exert certain types of control. If more than one business exerts the right kinds of control, there can be more than one employer. That’s the whole point of joint employment.

Here’s an analogy that may be useful. Suppose a worker has a manager, who reports to a general manager. Both the direct manager and the general manager have control over the worker, even though the direct manager has more day-to-day and direct control. But they both are managers, and both have the right to control how the worker does the job. It’s not about which of the two managers has more control. They both manage the employee. Jointly.

To effectively defend against claims of joint employment, it’s necessary to understand the legal test for joint employment. Here, the contracting company argued the wrong test and scored a hollow victory at trial. In goat-speak, they overlooked the food and ate the paper cup. Now they’ll have to do it all over again, costing the contracting company a boatload in additional legal expenses for a second trial.

The lesson here is: Know the law, and know the tests. It’s hard to mount a real defense against joint employment if you don’t.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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In Contract Labor Agreements, This Simple Clause Can Be Your Pillow

Joint employment contract clauseFor humans, some things are essential. Like a good pillow. For non-humans, the anti pillow sometimes works too. Not sure how. But the non-human in this picture generally sleeps like this.

For businesses contracting for labor, some things are essential too. One clause you are likely to have in contract with a supplier of labor is the right to remove a bad apple from the project.

The bad apple clause typically reads something like this: “We have the right to remove any individual supplied by contractor from the project for any reason at any time.”

That’s useful, but does it create an argument that your business is taking control over the individual’s employment in a way that could make your business an employer (or joint employer) of an individual you remove?

Here’s a simple fix to improve your contracts and limit the viability of that argument:

“We have the right to remove any individual supplied by contractor from the project for any reason at any time. We do not, however, have any right to control the individual’s employment status with contractor. Contractor retains the sole right to make all decisions regarding the hiring, termination, and other conditions of employment for all individuals assigned to the project or removed from the project.”

Consider the addition of that extra sentence or two to be a fluffy pillow.  It will help you sleep better if faced with a misclassification or joint employment claim.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Need training on avoiding independent contractor misclassification claims? Hey, I do that!  

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The Monster with Three Eyes Can Help You Avoid Claims of Joint Employment

Some monsters are scary. There’s Godzilla, who terrorized Tokyo and whose name in Japanese translates roughly to gorilla-whale. (Thanks, wikipedia!) There’s Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula (also Count Chocula), and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was filmed in terrorizingly implausible black and white 3-D.

But on the other hand, some monsters are friendly and educational, like Cookie Monster, E.T., or, dare I say, Elmo. (“Kids look at these crayons… Kids look at these crayons.”)

This post is about a friendly and educational monster: The Monster with Three Eyes.

If you want to help your business avoid claims of joint employment, remember the Monster with Three Eyes when drafting contracts with staffing agencies or other vendors that supply labor.

Confession: The “three eyes” really should be the letter I three times, but when I try to write that out, it looks like “three is,” which is neither memorable nor a suitable name for a monster, even a friendly and educational one. So we go with three eyes. When I say it aloud — making sure first that no one is listening because why would a person say something like that aloud for seemingly no reason? — it sounds the same.

Here are the three main ingredients you’ll want to include in each contract with a vendor that supplies labor:

1. Identify the sole responsibilities of the vendor with respect to its employees. List these responsibilities. List the various obligations of an employer — things like properly recording all hours worked, paying overtime, paying a minimum wage, handling payroll, reimbursing expenses, providing meal and rest breaks, stuff like that. List these responsibilities specifically in the contract. Don’t just say the agency agrees it is the sole employer. Remember, joint employment is a legal doctrine that holds your business responsible if the vendor failed to do something it’s supposed to do. If your found to be legally liable, you want to be able to point to a specific contractual obligation the vendor failed to satisfy.

2. Indemnify. The indemnification provision needs specificity. It should require the vendor to indemnify your business for any claims of joint employment and for any claims arising out of the vendor failing to comply with any of its contractual obligations. That’s why you’re listing the specific contractual obligations of the vendor. When seeking indemnification, you want to be able to point to a specific contractual obligation the vendor failed to meet, which triggers the indemnification requirement.

3. Insure. Insurance requirements are just as important as indemnity. The indemnity clause is of no value if the vendor goes out of business or is liable for more than it can pay. Vendors who supply labor should be able to demonstrate that they have sufficient insurance so that if there is a joint employment claim and your business seeks indemnity, someone (the insurer) has the ability to pay.

Because joint employment is a legal doctrine that can hold your business fully liable for the misdeeds of a vendor, the key to limiting your business’s exposure is a carefully drafted contract. Even if your business is jointly liable under the law, you want to have a contractual claim against the vendor that failed to do what it was supposed to do, along with indemnity and insurance so that your business can be made whole.

So remember the Monster with Three Eyes when drafting or reviewing your next contract with a vendor that is providing laborers. If the vendor fails to meet its legal obligations, a contract drafted with these lessons in mind will be the gorilla-whale you need to get out of paying for the vendor’s mistakes.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Need training on avoiding independent contractor misclassification claims? Hey, I do that!  

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“This is a Cabinet”: DOL Proposes New Definition of Joint Employer, Seeks to Clear Up a Confusing Label

This post was originally published as a BakerHostetler Employment Alert on April 3, 2019. Cabinet joint employmentSometimes it’s obvious what something is, and you don’t need a label. Other times it’s not so obvious, and you do need a label. Then there’s the rare instance when it’s obvious what something is, but someone feels compelled to supply a label anyway. That third scenario is what I saw when I went to my daughter’s volleyball tournament last weekend and snapped this photo of a cabinet in the lobby. The label is small, but if you look closely, you’ll see that it helpfully declares the item to be a “cabinet.” It further announces, in red handwriting, that the item has been “sold,” thereby allaying my concerns that my daughter was spending her Saturday playing volleyball in a den of cabinet thieves.

The second scenario – label needed – is the focus of this Alert. And the territory is familiar ground ‒ joint employment.

It’s rarely obvious what that phrase means, and companies that use workers supplied by other companies have been seeking clarity for some time now. Ignoring Ronald Reagan’s famous quip about the nine most terrifying words in the English language, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced on Monday that it’s here to help.

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Arbitration Agreements & Staffing Company Workers: Can They Take You Anywhere You Want to Go?

1956 chevy bel air Arbitration agreements staffing agency

1956 Chevy Bel Air. The Ides of March’s Vehicle was a ‘55.

I’m your vehicle baby. I can take you anywhere you want to go.

That may be true for Jim Peterik, vocalist and frontman for The Ides of March, who issued this bold proclamation in the band’s 1970 single, “Vehicle.” (It worked. See more below.)

It’s not true for arbitration agreements, though. They can’t take you anywhere you want to go unless you draft them very carefully. A recent decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals reminds us of this lesson, although the opinion disappointingly fails to quote the Ides of March.

In Hogan v. SPAR Group Inc., we have an independent contractor named Paradise Hogan (which seems like would have been a cool name for a rock band); a staffing company called SBS; and a retail services provider called SPAR.  SPAR contracted with the staffing company to use the services of its independent contractors, including Hogan.

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Fecal Matter Meets Electrical Wind Machine: NLRB Scrambles to Re-Evaluate Joint Employment

NLRB rulemaking update browniong-ferris Hits the fanAccording to the British site, The Phrase Finder, the expression When the shit hits the fan “alludes to the unmissable effects of shit being thrown into an electric fan.” That’s lovely. The Cambridge Dictionary (also U.K.) describes the idiom a bit more delicately: “also, when the shit flies, [when] a situation suddenly causes a lot of trouble for someone.”

Thank you, British internet!

In any event, this expression seems to capture the predicament the NLRB suddenly finds itself in after the D.C. Court of Appeals issued its unexpected ruling a couple weeks ago in the ongoing Browning-Ferris case, which we wrote about here.

The ruling vastly complicated the NLRB’s efforts to adopt a more pro-business definition of “joint employment” that would require direct control over essential terms of employment before joint employment could be found. The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the meaning of “joint employment” under the National Labor Relations Act is determined by the common law Right to Control Test, and that the NLRB has no authority to change the definition in a way that is inconsistent with the common law meaning.

The common law Right to Control Test, to the current Board’s dismay, allows for a finding of joint employment when control is reserved, even if the right to control is not actually exercised. That ruling is contrary to the definition being proposed by the NLRB as part of its ongoing effort to enact a new regulation through the rulemaking process.

Since the D.C. Court of Appeals ruling, here’s what’s been happening:

First, two key Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Board Chair John Ring, asking that the Board abandon its rulemaking effort in light of the court’s ruling. Nice effort, but that’s not likely to happen.

Second, “in light of the unique circumstance” posed by the court’s decision, the Board has again extended the period for the public to submit comments on the proposed rule. The new deadline is January 28, 2019, with reply comments due February 11, 2019. This is the third time the Board has extended the comment period. The second extension inspired one of my favorite posts, “Amazon Users (espec. Cindy, Amy & kris), Please Don’t Submit Comments On the NLRB’s Proposed Joint Employment Rule,” which if you missed, it’s not too late.

So what happens next?  The Board has a few options:

1. It can change the proposed rule to allow for a finding of joint employment when a company reserves the right to exercise control, even if the control is indirect and is never actually exercised, but only if the right to control covers “essential” terms and conditions of employment. That change would be consistent with the D.C. Court of Appeals ruling, but it’s not as sweeping a change as current pro-business Board majority would like.

2. It can plow forward with its current rulemaking plan and ignore the D.C. Court of Appeals. The NLRB typically ignores decisions by the U.S. Courts of Appeal on the basis that there are 12 regional federal Courts of Appeal and they don’t always agree, while on the other hand, the NLRB’s authority is national, not regional. This approach often results in circuit splits, in which Courts of Appeal issue contradictory rulings, a situation that generally results in the U.S. Supreme Court deciding the issue once and for all. If the NLRB takes this approach, a circuit split could develop, and the Supreme Court would be likely to get involved, but it would probably take years before that wound its way up to the Supreme Court.

3. It can ask the full slate of D.C. Court of Appeals judges to re-hear the case. This is called an en banc proceeding. Since the decision was 2-1, there could be some momentum toward the full slate of judges agreeing to reconsider the case, but even if that happens, there is no guarantee the ruling would be any different.

4. The D.C. Court of Appeals decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court could decide to hear the case, or it could decline and allow the law to further develop. The Supreme Court often waits to hear what other Courts of Appeal have to say before it issues a final decision. But even if the Supreme Court takes the case, there is no assurance that the NLRB will get the ruling it wants.

Here’s why. On one hand, the newly constituted Supreme Court is more conservative and is regarded as more pro-business, which would appear to suggest support for the outcome that the pro-business NLRB would want — authority to narrow the definition of joint employment to situations in which control is directly exercised, not merely reserved.

But on the other hand, the current Supreme Court seems less and less inclined to defer to agencies’ interpretations of statutes. While the current Supreme Court may be sympathetic to the outcome desired by the NLRB, it is unlikely to be sympathetic to the process by which the NLRB wants to achieve that outcome. The Supreme Court’s current members seem inclined to limit the authority of federal agencies to re-interpret the law.

There are lots of ways the joint employment saga might play out. But for now, it’s fair to say that the D.C. Court of Appeals decision was unexpected and messy, in a way that alludes to the unmissable effects of excrement being thrown into an electric fan (as the Brits might say).

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Orlando on Jan. 24, Philadelphia on Feb. 26, or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Backfired? New Ruling May Threaten NLRB’s Proposed Rule on Joint Employment

Joint employment bagpipe

The word “backfire” derives from the grooming practices of 15th century Scottish noblemen, who grew beautiful long fiery-red flowing back hair, which they brushed and braided into elaborate patterns, including the “Haggis Flow” and the “Scotch Tape.” Ok, not really. Efforts to rewrite history and change definitions can sometimes fall short of the mark.

The NLRB’s grand strategy for rewriting the definition of joint employment may have just backfired. A Court of Appeals decision issued late last week may jeopardize the Board’s rulemaking authority, even though that was not the issue before the Court.

Before we dive into the December 28, 2018 ruling, here is a quick refresher on how we got here:

  • In 2015, the Democratic-majority Board adopted a vastly expanded definition of joint employment, allowing a business to be deemed a joint employer (1) even if it did not control working conditions but merely retained the right to do so, or did so indirectly, such as through third party subcontracting, and (2) even if the working conditions that could be controlled were non-essential working conditions, not just the key terms and conditions like hiring, firing, and disciplining. This was the Browning-Ferris decision.
  • In early 2018, the newly constituted Republican Board tried to reverse its 2015 Browning-Ferris decision in a case called Hy-Brand, in which the Board enacted a much narrower, pro-business definition of joint employment, requiring direct and immediate control over essential terms and conditions of employment before a company could be deemed a joint employer.
  • Several weeks later, however, the Board reversed itself and rescinded the Hy-Brand decision after conflict of interest questions arose relating to one of the board members (Member Emanuel) who decided Hy-Brand. When the Board rescinded its Hy-Brand decision, the effect was to re-establish the expansive 2015 Browning-Ferris test as the operative definition of joint employer.
  • In light of its failed effort in Hy-Brand, the Board then chose to pursue a two-step Plan B for overruling Browning-Ferris and for narrowing the definition of joint employment.
  • Step 1 would be to enact a new regulation, creating a narrower definition of joint employment that would, in effect, overrule Browning-Ferris prospectively. That process is ongoing. Step 2 was to ask the D.C. Court of Appeals to reopen the otherwise mothballed appeal of the Board’s 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris, which adopted the current broad definition of joint employment.
  • In Step 2, the Board expected the Court of Appeals to find that the 2015 Browning-Ferris decision was an overreach and that the vastly expanded definition of joint employment could not survive. That ruling would have nicely positioned the Board to roll out its new regulation, which would substantially narrow the definition of joint employment, as it tried to do in the Hy-Brand case.

That brings us to this past Friday’s decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals (Dec. 28, 2018) and the real meaning of the word “backfire.” Step 2 did not go the way the NLRB had planned.

The Court of Appeals’ Ruling and Its Effect on Joint Employment

According to the 2-1 majority opinion, the question of whether there is a joint employment relationship under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) must be answered by applying the common law test for whether there exists an “agency” relationship.  The Board has no special expertise relevant to defining the common law of agency. Therefore, according to the Court of Appeals, the Board is awarded no deference in this area. In other words, the Board does not have the right to define or redefine joint employment in a way that would be inconsistent with the common law meaning of “agency.”

The Court of Appeals said that the Board’s 2015 ruling in Browning-Ferris — that indirect or reserved control can be considered when determining whether a joint employment relationship exists — was appropriate because it is consistent with the common law of agency.  Under the common law, it is the right to control that matters, even if that control is not exercised. In fact, the Court of Appeals concluded that Board has no authority to prohibit the consideration of indirect or reserved control when evaluating whether there is joint employment. (That’s what the Board is currently trying to do through rulemaking.)  The reason the Board cannot prohibit consideration of indirect or reserved control is that the common law definition of agency examines whether an entity has the right to control how work is performed, regardless of whether that control is exercised. This last point is important for reasons that the D.C. Court of Appeals was not directly addressing. That point — if it hold true — would cast doubt on the Board’s ability to implement its proposed new regulation. The regulation would require a showing of direct and immediate control (not merely indirect or reserved control) before joint employment can be found.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals did not, however, give the Board’s 2015 Browning-Ferris ruling its full backing. Where the Browning-Ferris ruling went wrong, according to the Court of Appeals, was in allowing the consideration of indirect or reserved control over non-essential terms and conditions of employment.  The common law agency test requires control (or indirect or reserved control) over essential terms and conditions of employment (e.g., hiring, firing, disciplining).  The Court therefore ruled that the Board lacks authority to change that definition in a way that make a business a joint employer merely by entering into a standard subcontracting or staffing agency agreement. All such relationships involve some level of control over non-essential working terms, such as defining the type of work to be done by the subcontractor or staffing agency workers and dictating the desired result.

The 2015 Browning-Ferris case is now being remanded back to the Board to take another shot at it. That would be fine and dandy with the now-Republican-majority Board, except for the fact that the Board may now be impotent to make a meaningful pro-business change in this case, since Member Emanuel might be precluded from participating in the decision due to Littler’s representation of Leadpoint, the staffing agency in the Browning-Ferris dispute (or maybe he is not precluded now, since the one-year conflicts period has now lapsed). Member Emanuel was a shareholder in the Littler firm before his appointment to the Board in September 2017. Further complicating the possible recusal issue is the fact that Trump required his appointees to sign an Ethics Pledge that provided a two-year conflict of interest period, rather than the standard one-year period.

The most lasting effect of this Court of Appeals decision is likely to be that it calls into question whether the Board can, through rulemaking, redefine joint employment in a way that eliminates consideration of indirect or reserved control by a putative joint employer.  If the definition of joint employment under the NLRA is determined by the common law of agency, and the Board — according to this Court of Appeals — lacks the expertise to interpret the common law of agency, then the Board would lack authority to change the definition in the way it proposes.

On the other hand…

On the other hand, it may be that this decision has no lasting impact at all on the definition of joint employment under the NLRA. This was a 2-1 decision by U.S. Court of Appeals, not by the U.S. Supreme Court. The two judges in the majority were Obama appointees. The full D.C. Circuit could be asked to reconsider the issue in an en banc proceeding.  Or the matter could go to the Supreme Court (which seems unlikely).

Or, if past practice is any indicator of future behavior, the Board might just ignore the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, on the basis that there are 12 Circuit Courts and they often disagree. The Board is required to follow rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it often ignores legal opinions issued by the individual Courts of Appeal. The Board must, of course, follow the D.C. Court of Appeals’ ruling as it relates to this particular dispute, but it will not necessarily take the Court of Appeals’ broader rulings as controlling authority on what the Board can or cannot do.

So where are we?

We’ll see. But two things are certain.  First, the definition of joint employment will continue to evolve; and second, the definition of backfire has nothing to do with Scottish nobleman or their back hair.

And at the end of the day, joint employment continues to be a messy, messy situation.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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