Dead or Alive? Contractor Dispute Leads to Important Ohio Decision on Agency Deference

An author of romance novels died in 2020, committing suicide after online bullying. Or so it seemed. But a few days ago, Susan Meachen posted on Facebook to say she was back. Not in a risen-from-the-grave sort of way. She says she faked her own death and is very much alive. The story has been covered by CNN and BBC, and I don’t know whether anyone has yet figured out whether Meachen died or someone is now posting under her name.

One thing that seems more clearly dead, though, is the legal principle of agency deference in Ohio. This important decision arose out of a contractor dispute.

In a 7-0 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that under Ohio law, the judiciary is never [italics in original] required to defer to an administrative agency’s interpretation of the law, even if the statute is ambiguous. Only the judiciary has the authority to interpret the law for purposes of a judicial proceeding.

The Court held that an agency’s interpretation of the law is merely one view that a court may consider. The Court also stressed that an agency’s interpretation of common words is entirely irrelevant since courts are well equipped to interpret common words. Deference to an agency’s interpretation will depend on how persuasive a court finds the agency’s interpretation to be. A court might be more likely to defer if there is an ambiguity over a technical matter over which the agency has expertise, but even then, deference is never required.

I have attached an annotated copy of the opinion.

Here are some excerpts. These are quotes:

  • The judicial branch is never required to defer to an agency’s interpretation of the law. As we explain, an agency interpretation is simply one consideration a court may sometimes take into account in rendering the court’s own independent judgment as to what the law is.
  • First, it is never mandatory for a court to defer to the judgment of an administrative agency. Under our system of separation of powers, it is not appropriate for a court to turn over its interpretative authority to an administrative agency..
  • Now assume that a court does find ambiguity and determines to consider an administrative interpretation along with other tools of interpretation. The weight, if any, the court assigns to the administrative interpretation should depend on the persuasive power of the agency’s interpretation and not on the mere fact that it is being offered by an administrative agency. A court may find agency input informative; or the court may find the agency position unconvincing. What a court may not do is outsource the interpretive project to a coordinate branch of government.

The case arose when an engineering firm applied for an engineering license in Ohio. Seems uneventful, except the firm listed an independent contractor as its full-time manager. Ohio law requires a firm to identify a responsible full-time manager to receive a license. The Ohio Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Surveyors denied the license on the grounds that a full-time manager could not be an independent contractor. The Board said that a manager had to be a W2 employee.

But the statute requires only that there be a full-time manager. It doesn’t say who can be a manager. The Board determined that an independent contractor could not be a “full-time manager” because independent contractors (if properly classified) are not controlled by their client. In other words, how could the firm be managed by someone it cannot control?

That’s a great question from a practical standpoint. If the contractor is properly classified, it might be a terrible idea to designate an independent contractor as your firm’s full-time manager. But that doesn’t mean it’s prohibited by the licensing statute.

The Ohio Supreme Court explained that the statute requires the Board (“shall”) to grant a license when a firm identifies a full-time manager and meets the other criteria. The Court ruled that the Board, as an administrative agency, has no right to impose additional requirements that are not in the statute, such as that the full-time manager cannot be an independent contractor.

The Court used this dispute to lay down a marker on an important issue of law — When must a court defer to an agency’s interpretation of the law? In Ohio, the answer is never.

This issue comes up often at the federal level too, and you’ll hear a lot more about this issue following the recent announcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that it plans to pass a regulation making non-compete agreements illegal. The FTC probably does not have the legal authority to do that. A law to prohibit non-competes would almost definitely have to come from the legislature, not an executive agency. If the FTC goes through with its plan, the issue is likely to end up in front of a federal court, which is likely to rule that the FTC does not have this authority. The US Supreme Court’s conservative majority has sent signals that it will be less inclined to defer to agencies than in the past, and it would not be surprising to see the US Supreme Court issue a ruling at some point that looks a lot like this Ohio decision.

The bottom line here is that the era of agencies making new law through regulation may be coming to an end. Agencies can interpret ambiguities in statutes, and they can provide more detail about legal requirements when authorized to do so. But they cannot impose new requirements when not specifically authorized to do so. The path taken by the Ohio Supreme Court may be a sign of similar things to come at the federal level.

In terms of typical independent contractor issues, this post is a bit off topic. But the issue is an important one, and it arose out of a contractor dispute, so I just decided to just go for it and write this post, whether it’s what you were expecting or not.

Kind of like Susan Meachen did recently when she posted on Facebook. Or didn’t post. We still don’t really know.

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© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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When They Get Around To It: Update on the DOL’s Independent Contractor Rulemaking

In Denbighshire, Wales, the Howatson family lives in a small house that sits… wait for it… in the middle of a roundabout.

In the early 1980s, after the family had been in the house for 20 years, local authorities told them their property sat smack in the middle of where a roundabout was to be built. The family refused to sell, and they now have lovely 360-degree views of people driving around their house all day and night.

The Department of Labor is taking is a more direct approach in its effort to update the worker classification test under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But it’s a slow process, and it will be several more months before we see a final rule.

But this post will provide a status update. Long story short, we’ll see a new rule when the DOL gets around to it.

In October 2022, the DOL released its proposed new test for determining who is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The proposed rule generated more than 50,000 comments in response. I posted some initial reactions to the proposed rule in this article here.

The proposed rule identifies seven factors to consider when determining whether an independent contractor has been misclassified under the FLSA:

1. Opportunity for profit or loss depending on managerial skill;

2. Investments by the worker and the employer;

3. Degree of permanence of the work relationship;

4. Nature and degree of control;

5. Extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business;

6. Skill and initiative; and

7. Additional factors.

Under federal law, the rulemaking process involves three main steps. First, the agency posts a proposed new regulation. That’s what the DOL did in October.

Second, there is a public comment period, in which anyone can submit a comment to the DOL. The most effective comments tend to assist the agency in evaluating its proposed rule, such as explaining likely unintended consequences or identifying concerns with how it is written. Comments can also offer legal arguments as to why the agency’s proposed rule is not consistent with the law it is supposed to be interpreting.

Finally, after reviewing the comments, the agency will publish a final rule. The final rule might differ from the proposed rule, or it could be the same. Or the agency can jettison the proposed rule entirely and do nothing. Here that last option is unlikely. The DOL will almost certainly issue a new rule.

On December 13, I submitted a lengthy comment on behalf of Flex, the trade organization representing app-based rideshare and delivery platforms. The full comment is available here, and I thought it might be helpful to summarize the main points for this audience.

The comment included two parts.

Part One argues that the DOL should not abandon the current rule (the 2021 Rule), which was passed less than two years ago. The 2021 Rule was adopted after a thorough rulemaking process and comment period, and the rule was developed based on a detailed analysis by the DOL of decades of case law. The 2021 Rule focused on two core factors, rather than offering a multitude of factors that have no pre-assigned weight. The 2021 Rule offered more predictability for businesses and contractors, and predictability in the law is — to put it bluntly — good. A regulation should add clarity, and the 2021 Rule added clarity.

Part One also pointed out that the 2021 Rule had done little to damper the DOL’s efforts at combatting misclassification. The DOL has published a long list of successes in obtaining settlements and judgments in the last three months alone.

Abandoning the 2021 Rule would also be arbitrary and capricious, meaning it might not survive a legal challenge, and we urged the DOL not to make a change.

Part Two argues that even if the DOL decides to abandon the 2021 Rule, the proposed new rule needs some work. Part Two focused on seven aspects of the proposed new rule that the DOL should change.

The key thing to remember is that the DOL wants to go back to a multi-factor test. Multi-factor tests have been around for a long time, but the devil here is in the details. If you read the DOL’s description of each factor and how it should be applied, the DOL is putting its fingers on the scale, taking every close call (and some that aren’t close) and resolving them in favor of employee status.

I will list the seven arguments below to provide a general sense of the key points. But, since this is supposed to be a quick read format, I’m not going to wade into the details. You can read the full comment if you like.

From the Table of Contents to Part Two:

1) In Factor #1, the Commentary about “Managerial Skill” Should Be Deleted or Revised Because It Fails to Account for the Realities of 21st Century Work.

2) Factor #2 Should Be Substantially Revised to Remove Provisions That Are Illogical, Incompatible with Economic Realities, and Contrary to FLSA Case Law.

3) Factor #4 Should Remove the Commentary That Legally Required Control May Be Relevant Evidence of Control Because This Commentary Is Contrary to Controlling Case Law, Contrary to this Department’s Own Guidance, and Not Probative of the Economic Realities of a Relationship.

4) In Factor #4, Use of Technology to Supervise Should Not Be Referenced as a Relevant Control Factor.

5) Factor #5 Should Preserve the Current “Integrated Unit of Production” Analysis and Should Not Adopt a Flawed “Integral Part” Analysis That is Contrary to Case Law and Legally Unsupported.

6) Any Final Rule Should Preserve the Helpful Subregulatory Guidance in Fact Sheet #13, Clarifying That Certain Factors Are Not Relevant.

7) Any Final Rule Should Replace the Term “Employer” with “Principal” or a Similarly Neutral Term.

You can read the complete arguments here.

And now onto Step Three of the DOL’s rulemaking process. Last week, the Biden Administration published its overall regulatory agenda for 2023. It included a May 2023 placeholder for a proposed final rule. That’s just a best guess at this point, and with more than 50,000 comments for the DOL to review, the actual release date may be several months later. But the DOL, at least at present, appears prepared to move forward with a new rule to determine independent contractor vs. employee status under the FLSA.

We’ll continue to monitor developments, in a roundabout way.

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© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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What to Watch for in 2023: Big Changes May Be Coming for Independent Contractor and Joint Employment Laws

If you google “what to watch for 2023,” you’ll mostly get tips on soon-to-be-released movies and streaming video shows. You’ll get grammatically impossible generic hype like “movies we can’t wait to see” (except the whole point is that you have to wait to see them) and you’ll get grammatically impossible niche hype like “The most anticipated Korean dramas and movies we can’t wait to watch in 2023.”

We won’t peddle hype in this post, and you’ll literally have to wait for all of the things addressed below. But here are five important developments to watch for in 2023.

1. The test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee is likely to change, at least under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The Department of Labor proposed a new multi-factor test, and the period for public comment ended December 13. The DOL is likely to roll out a new test in 2023. It will replace the current core factors test described here.

2. The test for Joint Employment is likely to change, at least under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In September, the NLRB proposed a new test for determining when joint employment exists under the NLRA. You can read more here. The public comment period has closed, and we can expect a new test sometime in 2023.

3. The NLRB is likely to rule that independent contractor misclassification, by itself, is an unfair labor practice. The NLRB General Counsel has expressed an intent to reverse the Velox Express decision from 2019, in which the Board ruled that misclassification was not an automatic ULP. More information is here. Now that the Board majority has switched from Republican to Democrat, expect a decision in 2023 that creates an automatic ULP when there’s a finding of worker misclassification.

4. Expect state legislatures to keep changing the tests for Independent Contractor vs. Employee. Some states will try to make it harder to maintain independent contractor status by passing ABC Tests, in either a standard or strict version. A few conservative states may go the other way and adopt the latest version of the Uniform Worker Classification Act proposed by ALEC. The law would create a safe harbor for independent contractor classification if certain requirements are followed, including having a written contract. Versions of this law have been passed in West Virginia and Louisiana. You can read more here. Expect Oklahoma to be next.

5. Expect significant rulings on California independent contractor law. Several important cases are pending. These include Olson v. State of California, which challenges the constitutionality of AB 5. Oral argument was held in the Ninth Circuit in July 2022. In another case, the California Court of Appeal is considering the legality of Prop 22, the successful ballot measure that helped to protect independent contractor status for rideshare and delivery drivers using app services. Oral argument in that case, Castellanos v. State of California, was held in December 2022.

The law regarding contingent workforce is constantly changing, and 2023 looks to be another year of significant transformation. As always, it will be a good idea to watch these new developments carefully, as they will likely have a significant impact on companies using independent contractors and other contingent workforce arrangements.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2023!

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Horizontal Risk: Criminal Case Moves Forward on No-Poach Agreement Among Competitors

Christian Encarnacion-Strand presents an unusual problem for the Cincinnati Reds. His name is too long to fit horizontally across the back of his uniform. The Reds are taking an upside-down-horseshoe approach to this problem, and if this minor league third baseman makes the big league club this year, his 18-character surname (with hyphen) would win the award (there’s no award) for most characters in a major league surname.

The current honor lies with Simeon Woods Richardson, a pitcher for the Twins, whose unhyphenated surname stretches 16 characters (including the space). The Twins applied more of a 3/4 circle strategy, which I think is less visually appealing than the Reds’ approach.

When it comes to horizontal challenges, placing letters on a uniform falls in the category of very low risk. The twitter community may have strong opinions, but there’s no real implication to either approach.

But when it comes to horizontal relationships among companies competing for talent, it’s much more important to get things right. No poaching agreements can lead to criminal charges — as we can see from a case making its way through the federal district court in Connecticut.

In the pending case, Company A outsourced engineering projects to companies B through F, all of whom compete for engineering talent. Companies B through F also compete with each other for projects from Company A.

Between 2011 and 2019, Companies A through F allegedly agreed to restrict the hiring and recruiting of engineers and other skilled-labor employees between them. All of the companies allegedly agreed to (1) not hire employees of Companies B through F and (2) not proactively contact, interview, and recruit applicants who were employed by another one of the companies. Company A allegedly policed and enforced the agreement.

This arrangement led to a criminal indictment, charging that these no-poaching agreements were a conspiracy in restrain of trade, in violation of the Sherman Act. The indictment alleges that the companies engaged in illegal market allocation, which suppressed competition for talent and wages.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the indictment. Because this issue potentially affects staffing and franchise relationships, the American Staffing Association, the Society for Human Resource Management, and others filed amicus briefs in support of the motion to dismiss.

On December 2, 2022, the district court denied the motion to dismiss. The opinion evaluates the arguments on both sides and considers how this arrangement compares to others where no-poach agreements have been held to be permitted. For example, the court considered whether the agreed-upon restraint was “ancillary to a legitimate business collaboration.” If yes, that could support an exception to the legal prohibition on restraints of trade. But the court ruled that the relationship here was competitive, not collaborative, because Companies B through F were competing for outsourcing work from Company A.

From a procedural standpoint, this decision does not make any findings about whether the arrangement actually did violate the law. This ruling is just the denial of a motion to dismiss, which means the case can move forward.

But the opinion should provide a wake up call to the staffing industry, the franchise industry, and other organizations where a small identifiable number of companies are competing for talent and for engagements.

The federal government has made it a priority to minimize restraints of trade and has shown a willingness to issue criminal indictments against companies (and individuals) who enter into unlawful agreements that restrict labor mobility.

That is not to say that all no-poach agreements are unlawful. In many situations they are appropriate. But companies in horizontal competition with each other need to tread very carefully, and any no-poach agreement among horizontal competitors may create significant legal problems, including potential criminal liability.

For baseball uniforms, horizontal challenges can be addressed with the upside-down horseshoe or 3/4 circle strategy (preferably the former!). But these simple solutions are not available in the business world, where companies compete for talent and engagements. As of now, there is no upside-down horseshoe exception to the Sherman Act.

Amicus briefs were file

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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But the Onions! DOL’s Contractor Rule May Cause Companies Heartburn

Have you ever gone to a new restaurant that took over the space where one of your favorite restaurants used to be?
 
You’ve been wanting to try the new restaurant. You get there and the menu looks similar, so you order the fettucine with shrimp because that dish was always really good at the old place. It arrives and it looks the same but you’re not sure that it tastes quite the same.
 
Maybe the sauce tastes a little different but it’s hard to tell for sure. Then, you get home later that night and you feel a little queasy. You realize that the new restaurant must have put onions in the sauce. You probably didn’t notice because when the dish was served it looked just like it did at the old restaurant.
 
But you’re not supposed to eat onions, and now you have to wait and see if you’re going to start cramping up from eating the onions or if you’re going to be just fine. You really just don’t know. It could just as easily go either way, and now all you can do is wait.
 
That’s kind of how I feel after reading the Department of Labor’s proposed new independent contractor rule, released earlier this week.

Click here to read the rest of the story, originally published in Law360 on 10/13/2022.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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NLRB’s Proposed New Joint Employment Rule: Same But Different

[Reposting with revised link to the article, not behind paywall]

When I was 5 years old, and my sister was 3, the rule was that we had to be in our rooms by 8 p.m.

We followed that rule, but in our own way. We’d put on our pajamas, say good night and go into our rooms. But then we would lie down on the carpet at the very edge of our rooms, with our bodies still in the room and our heads in the hallway so we could talk.

In the strictest sense, we followed the rule. But we did it in our own way, to serve our own purposes. In essence, we chose to define what it means to be in our rooms.

The same sort of rulemaking is happening at the National Labor Relations Board on the subject of defining joint employment.

Click here to read the rest of this article, published 9/12/2022 in Law360.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved. This article originally published on Law360, 9/12/2022.

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Summer of Fun? FTC Announces Plans to Crack Down on Gig Economy

Zippy at her first reggae concert

In my house, we have declared this to be the Summer of Fun, and we’ve committed to going to events around Cleveland that we haven’t tried before. Sometimes the dog gets to come too. Last month, we took Zippy to her first reggae concert. You can tell she enjoyed it because she’s smiling. (Or she’s thirsty. Still not sure.)

No concert t-shirt for Zippy though. They had suitably small sizes but nothing with four arm holes.

The Federal Trade Commission is also trying new things this summer. In a July press release, the FTC announced that one of its new initiatives is a crackdown on gig economy abuses.

The FTC can’t bring independent contractor misclassification cases, but it can bring enforcement actions when it believes there have been unfair or deceptive business practices that disadvantage gig workers.

The FTC announced that “the agency will continue to take action to stop deceptive and unfair acts and practices aimed at workers; particularly those in the ‘gig economy’ who often don’t enjoy the full protections of traditional employment relationships.” The press release then listed several examples of enforcement actions the FTC has been pursuing against gig economy companies. The cases tend to involve deceptive claims about earning opportunities, including for gig workers who use their platforms.

The FTC further announced that it’s teaming up with the NLRB to share information about alleged wrongdoers in the gig space. We already know that the NLRB’s General Counsel is on a mission to crack down on independent contractor business models. The decisions by the NLRB and FTC to join forces only heightens the risks for companies using an independent contractor business model.

Business using an independent contractor model need to remember that misclassification claims are not the only legal risk. Be sure that representations made to independent contractors about potential earning opportunities and other business practices are accurate and realistic.

Otherwise, despite it being the Summer of Fun, with reggae concerts and other goodness, the FTC may soon be on your doorstep, ready to Stir It Up.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Yes, This Applies to You: Why Non-Union Employers Should Be Concerned with the NLRB’s View On Worker Misclassification

Good news for old passengers traveling to New York!

The caption above may be too small to read, but it’s from a recent New York Times article about updates to the airport. The caption says, “An old passenger walkway in the process of being demolished at La Guardia Airport.”

You might not think this applies to you, but I say it’s about time! The idea of a walkway for old passengers doesn’t seem right, and old passengers should be allowed to use the same walkway as everyone else.

Another area where I sometimes hear “this doesn’t apply to me” is when we talk about the National Labor Relations Board’s views on independent contractor misclassification. But even if your business is union-free (meaning no union, not that the union is complimentary), the NLRB’s position on independent contractor misclassification matters. (Also, how is it that we intuitively know caffeine free means there’s no caffeine, rather than there’s lots of it and there’s no extra charge?)

The NLRB wants to make it harder to maintain independent contractor status under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Here are four reasons your non-union business should care about the NLRB’s views on independent contractor misclassification:

  1. The NLRB’s General Counsel has issued a policy memo indicated that she intends to have independent contractor misclassification declared to be an automatic unfair labor practice (ULP). This spring, the Board issued a complaint in a case that may help it achieve this policy goal. If misclassification becomes an automatic ULP, that would overturn the Board’s 2019 decision in Velox Express, when the Board said it was reasonable for a company to express its opinion that a worker was a contractor, not an employee, even if the company turned out to be wrong.
  2. If the NLRB rules that your contractors are employees, you can hang up a welcome shingle for your favorite union. (Aside: I don’t think anyone would welcome shingles, but you can buy welcome shingles on amazon.) Such a ruling would empower the unions to try to organize your newly-declared employees. If some independent contractors were already feeling mistreated enough to seek employee status, they’ll likely welcome union representation to help them fight back against The Man.
  3. The protections granted to employees under the NLRA apply to non-union employees too. But the NLRA doesn’t apply to independent contractors. Non-union employees have the right to engage in protected, concerted activity without fear of retaliation or reprisal. Contractors don’t. Protected, concerted activity can include more than you might think. Any time two employees get together to object to a business practice, that’s potentially protected, concerted activity. If two contractors jointly complain, the NLRA doesn’t apply.
  4. The NLRB has an information sharing agreement with the Department of Labor (DOL). If the NLRB thinks your contractors are misclassified, they’re probably gonna tell on you. The DOL may then starts its own investigation, viewing your company as an easy target for misclassification, even though the tests for employee status are different under the NLRA and the federal wage and hour laws administered by the DOL.

Like La Guardia, the NLRB is trying to do a little remodeling, but the NLRB’s remodeling is not for the benefit of old passengers. Instead, the Board is trying to make it harder to classify a worker as an independent contractor. The Board also wants to declare worker misclassification to be an automatic ULP.

Whether your workforce is union or non-union, businesses should pay attention. This is a rebuild that’s worth watching.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Watch Your Back, AB 5! Ninth Circuit Case Could Wipe Out California’s ABC Test

Yes, that’s a goat on my back.

This weekend we tried goat yoga. Highly recommended. It was a mix of basic yoga (my kind of yoga) to help get me stretched out, but held in a pen with goats who know no boundaries.

We then toured the farm, which featured llamas, long-haired pigs, guinea hens, a few obligatory dogs, and several varieties of goats, including the kind of fainting goats featured in that George Clooney movie.

Having to watch my back during yoga was something I signed up for and was part of the fun. Not so for California’s AB 5, which should be watching its back after what we saw at the Ninth Circuit last week.

The Ninth Circuit held oral argument in a case brought by Uber called Olson v State of California. Uber is arguing that AB 5 is unconstitutional.

While it’s hard to predict cases based on oral argument, the three judges on the panel seemed pretty sympathetic to Uber’s argument, which is that the statute arbitrarily picks winners and losers, i.e., the exemptions make no sense from an equal protection/due process standpoint.

Unlike the strict ABC Test in Massachusetts, the California ABC Test codified in AB 5 (and later AB 2257) contains loads of exceptions. The statute says to use the ABC Test to determine employee vs independent contractor status for all workers — except for dozens of categories of workers and other situations.

Let’s not pretend. We all know this bill was written to target ride share and delivery app companies. The unfairness of making this law apply to everyone soon became apparent and led to the insertion of dozens of exceptions. If an exception applies, the Borello balancing test applies instead of the ABC Test.

The exceptions just about swallow the rule, and a law targeting a handful of companies presents constitutional problems. Or so the argument goes.

We can expect a decision in the next few months, and this is one to watch. Unlike me at goat yoga, imagining a decision that strikes down or severely limits AB 5 is not a big stretch.

AB 5, watch your back.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Watch Your Back, AB 5! Ninth Circuit Case Could Wipe Out California’s ABC Test

Yes, that’s a goat on my back.

This weekend we tried goat yoga. Highly recommended. It was a mix of basic yoga (my kind of yoga) to help get me stretched out, but held in a pen with goats who know no boundaries.

We then toured the farm, which featured llamas, long-haired pigs, guinea hens, a few obligatory dogs, and several varieties of goats, including the kind of fainting goats featured in that George Clooney movie.

Having to watch my back during yoga was something I signed up for and was part of the fun. Not so for California’s AB 5, which should be watching its back after what we saw at the Ninth Circuit last week.

The Ninth Circuit held oral argument in a case brought by Uber called Olson v State of California. Uber is arguing that AB 5 is unconstitutional.

While it’s hard to predict cases based on oral argument, the three judges on the panel seemed pretty sympathetic to Uber’s argument, which is that the statute arbitrarily picks winners and losers, i.e., the exemptions make no sense from an equal protection/due process standpoint.

Unlike the strict ABC Test in Massachusetts, the California ABC Test codified in AB 5 (and later AB 2257) contains loads of exceptions. The statute says to use the ABC Test to determine employee vs independent contractor status for all workers — except for dozens of categories of workers and various other situations.

Let’s not pretend. We all know this bill was written to target ride share and delivery app companies. The unfairness of making this law apply to everyone soon became apparent and led to the insertion of dozens of exceptions. If an exception applies, the Borello balancing test applies instead of the ABC Test.

The exceptions just about swallow the rule, and a law targeting a handful of companies presents constitutional problems. Or so the argument goes.

We can expect a decision in the next few months, and this is one to watch. Unlike me at goat yoga, imagining a decision that strikes down or severely limits AB 5 is not a big stretch.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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