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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Join Me at Baker Hostetler’s 2019 Master Class on Employment Law (Three Locations)

2019 master class logoPlease join me and my colleagues in the Employment Group at Baker Hostetler for the 2019 Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law.  This year’s event will take place in three locations:

I will be presenting on the Gig Economy: Labor Relations Issues, with my colleague Peter Fischer.  We’ll cover 2018-19 developments in joint employment (there are many!) and the future of portable benefits for gig economy workers.

One of the best parts about the format of the Master Class is the ability to customize your day. Each attendee will choose 6 of 12 possible classes to attend and will receive a customized schedule. We’ve added several new hot topics to this year’s program, including #MeToo, Artificial Intelligence, and Union Organizing through Social Justice Campaigns.

To register, click here, or you can contact me directly at tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com.  If you list me as the attorney who invited you, I will have your admission fee waived.

More information is available by clicking the links to any of the cities listed above.

I hope to see you there!

© 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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NYC May Expand Anti-Discrimination Law to Cover Contractors, Interns

NYC anti discrimination gapI will admit, without shame, that in the 1980s, I loved the Gap Band. Songs like “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” and “Burn Rubber on Me” were just plain fun to listen to. Tip: Try it!

The band’s name didn’t refer to any actual gap — the name comes from the first letters of streets in Tulsa, Oklahoma — but I do know there are many gaps in anti-discrimination law, leaving some types of workers without adequate protection.  

The federal laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, like many (but not all) state laws, protect only employees. That leaves a gap. Independent contractors and interns who have been discriminated against may have no recourse.

The New York City Council is trying to close that gap.

In the same bill we excoriated on Monday for unfairly attacking the franchise model, the New York City Council also proposes to expand the protections of the City’s anti-discrimination law (section 8-107 of the Administrative Code) to protect independent contractors and interns, not just employees. 

Closing that gap makes sense. Hopefully this bill will be amended to keep the parts that expand anti-discrimination protection to non-employee workers (a good idea), while removing the parts that would expand liability to companies not responsible for the discrimination (a bad one).

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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NYC to Franchisors: We’re Going “Crazy on You”!

Barracuda NYCIn 1976, the band Heart released the album Dreamboat Annie. Soon after its release, the label (Mushroom Records) released a suggestive National Enquirer-style ad suggesting that sister Ann and Nancy Wilson might also be lesbian lovers. Ann’s outrage led her to write the song “Barracuda,” about ambush and false accusations.

A different Heart song title came to mind as I read the latest attempt by the New York City Council to hold franchisors responsible for acts they did not commit. 

A bill co-sponsored by 19 council members would amend the City’s anti-discrimination law to hold franchisors strictly liable for discriminatory acts by their franchisee. We have seen many attempts to expand the definition of “joint employer” to include franchisors, but this proposal goes beyond anything we’ve seen. This bill doesn’t even deal with the concept of “joint employment.” It just says that franchisors are liable for discriminatory acts of their franchisees, without any analysis of their involvement in the discriminatory acts or their level of control over the franchisee. It’s automatic.

That’s crazy. Holding one company strictly liable for the wrongful acts of another raises all sorts of legal concerns and, if passed, the bill will certainly be challenged in court.

Franchisors, the Council wants to go “Crazy on You.”

Now, truth be told, in the Heart song, going “Crazy on You” has a very different meaning than I intend it here. Ann Wilson and Roger Fisher (her bandmate, co-writer, and lover) meant it in an amorous way, but there is certainly no love between NYC and franchisors. The attacks by NYC on the franchisor-franchisee relationship are more like those of the sharp-toothed predator of the sea, the Barracuda.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Preview of 2021? New Bill Would Revoke Arbitration Agreements, Raise Stakes for Independent Contractor vs. Employee Disputes

Independent contractor misclassification epic systems congressRegardless of your politics, I think we can all agree that the best part of Election Day being over is that there will be no more political ads for a while. You know what I mean: “Candidate A hates you and your family and supports legislation to tax you into bankruptcy. I’m Candidate B and I approve this message.” Or, “Candidate B hates you and your family and supports criminals and gangs. I’m Candidate A and I approve this message.” Finally and mercifully, that’s going to end for a while.

So let’s look ahead to 2020, when another vicious round of political ads will be unleashed upon your television screen, punishing all who have not yet cut the cord.

With the Democrats taking control of the House, and with several key Republican seats expected to be in play in 2020, a Democratic presidential win in two years could mean that the Democrats enter 2021 in control of both houses of Congress and the Executive Branch.

A bill recently introduced by prominent Democrats provides a hint of what would happen to recent wins for businesses in the areas of employee arbitration agreements and class action waivers.

H.R. 7109, the Restoring Justice for Workers Act, would prohibit class action waivers in employment contracts and would prohibit agreements to arbitrate future claims. The proposed law would roll back the Supreme Court’s recent Epic Systems decision and shift the balance of workplace power back toward employees.

According to a study cited in Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Epic Systems, about 65% of companies with more than 1,000 employees have mandatory arbitration agreements. These contracts would become void.

The bill would also increase the stakes for businesses that use independent contractors. If employee arbitration agreements and class action waivers were unenforceable, then the determination of Independent Contractor vs. Employee becomes even more important. A misclassified contractor (who is deemed to be an employee) could then bring class action claims in court, rather than being restricted by contract to seeking an individual remedy through arbitration.

The bill has no chance of passage in the current Congress, but a tsunami of pro-worker legislation may be coming after the next couple of years. 

Meanwhile, enjoy the resumption of TV ads about erectile dysfunction and drugs that you should ask your doctor about even side effects include rare incurable cancers and in some cases death. These are the ads we know and love.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Is this weird trick the key to defeating independent contractor claims? (Hahahahahaha. No.)

Weird trick to defeat independent contractor claims Jani-King

As everyone with an internet connection now knows, articles promising “one weird trick” to solve some real-world problem are everywhere. These articles are annoying. (It’s called clickbait.) You open up the article, and the “weird trick” is usually something you already knew anyway. Or the weird trick just doesn’t work.

So what’s the “weird trick” here?

Requiring independent contractors to form corporate entities. Then you have a business-to-business contract, not employment. Right?

Ok, it’s not weird at all. Lots of companies use this approach.

But does it work? Not necessarily.

Let’s consider the issue under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA requires employees to be paid a minimum wage and overtime (unless there’s an exemption) and requires employers to keep certain kinds of pay records.

The test for determining whether someone is an employee under the FLSA is Ye Olde Economic Realities Test. 

Dear Reader, hold onto your seat, because we’re about to see this test in action!

Can you defeat independent contractor misclassification claims by requiring workers to form legal entities? Let’s see…

A federal appeals court recently considered a dispute involving Jani-King and its franchise model for providing janitorial services. Under Jani-King’s business model, the individuals who provide cleaning services are not treated by Jani-King as its employees. Rather, Jani-King requires that anyone who wants to provide janitorial services under the Jani-King name must form a legal entity, like an LLC. Then Jani-King enters into a franchise agreement with the LLC, and the LLC/franchisee provides the cleaning services. There is no job offer or employment agreement between Jani-King and the individuals performing the services. It’s all treated like a business-to-business, franchisor-franchisee relationship.

The Department of Labor (DOL) is questioning the legitimacy of this model.  The DOL began an investigation and then filed a lawsuit, claiming that Jani-King’s franchisees are really Jani-King’s employees under the FLSA, and Jani-King therefore had to comply with FLSA record-keeping requirements, as well as its overtime and minimum wage rules.

The reason Jani-King’s “one weird trick” doesn’t necessarily work is because to determine whether someone is an employee under the FLSA, it doesn’t matter what you call the worker. You can call the worker a contractor or a franchisee, but using that tag doesn’t mean the worker is not an employee under the FLSA. That’s a legal determination made using the Economic Realities Test.

In this case, the trial court judge in Oklahoma had dismissed the DOL’s case, ruling that Jani-King’s contracts were with entities, not individuals, so there could not be an employment relationship. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, said that’s not true. 

The Court of Appeals ruled that a six-part Economic Realities Test must be used to determine whether the individual franchisees who performed the janitorial work should be considered employees under the FLSA. Under the Economic Realities Test, a court must examine the economic realities of the relationship, not merely rely on the parties’ labels. 

In the Tenth Circuit (which covers Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming), here are the factors to consider under the Economic Realities Test:

1) The degree of control exerted by the alleged employer over the worker; 

2) The worker’s opportunity for profit or loss; 

3) The worker’s investment in the business; 

4) The permanence of the working relationship; 

5) The degree of skill required to perform the work; and 

6) The extent to which the work is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business.

The not-so-weird trick of requiring workers to set up a legal entity does not necessarily work. It can be helpful, but only if the facts show that the entity is not economically reliant on the other party. The facts matter, not the labels.

This case is headed back to the trial court for some fact-finding to determine how these six factors play out.

In the meantime, remember that “one weird trick” to solve some real-world problem is probably not weird at all, and it may or may not work. But it may arouse your curiosity and cause you read the article. Here, Jani-King’s one weird trick aroused the DOL’s curiosity, which is not something a business should want to do.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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