Identity Unclear? Court Adds to Confusion for Enforcing Arbitration Agreements

chickenZoanthropy is a mental disorder in which a person believes he or she is an animal. In this recent case, a 54-year old Belgian woman mistook herself for a chicken. The rare condition — and the woman’s clucking — stopped suddenly when she had a seizure, which apparently is a decidedly un-chickenlike thing to have.

Identity crises continue to plague the courts too. As we reported here, arbitration agreements can become unenforceable when applied to drivers of goods, if those drivers are in “interstate commerce.” What it means to drive in “interstate commerce” is not so clear. We reported last month on seemingly contradictory decisions by the New Jersey Supreme Court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

Last week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals muddied things up more, ruling that GrubHub’s arbitration agreements with independent contractor drivers were enforceable, meaning that drivers who sued, claiming employee status, had to bring their claims individually through arbitration, not in a class action in court. The court ruled that these local food delivery drivers were not driving in “interstate commerce.” (Tip: If you’re craving fries, order from a fast food joint in your home state. )

That’s a nice win for GrubHub and for the enforcement of arbitration agreements in general.

Eventually, the Supreme Court is going to have to sort this out and tell us when drivers of goods are in “interstate commerce” and when they are not. Courts have tried to draw distinctions around whether the drivers cross state lines, whether the goods cross state lines even if the drivers do not, and whether the goods were “at rest” before being driven the last mile. We have different standards being used by different courts in different states — even though they’re all just trying to interpret the meaning of an exception in a federal law, the Federal Arbitration Act.

The end result is that companies using arbitration agreements with drivers of goods may — or may not — be able to enforce their arbitration agreements under the Federal Arbitration Act.

For now, confusion reigns. But at least our Belgian chicken lady is back to normal. OddityCentral reports that some cases of zoanthropy have lasted decades.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

2018_Web100Badge

 

Up North, Uber Can’t Make Drivers Go to Amsterdam to Sue. (Wait, What?)

exposI bought a Montreal Expos t-shirt last week. Why? I needed some new work clothes.

I’ve been emailing with a friend in Ontario about the difference between the U.S. and Canada when it comes to coronavirus precautions, and we both agree it’s a good idea to keep the border closed for now. Did you see the Maid of the Mist pictures showing the Canadian boat with six well-distanced (and undoubtedly polite) passengers and the American boat packed like it’s 2019. Canada has hardly any cases. Anyway, I digress. As usual.

While Canada is on my mind, I’ll share a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. The ruling will allow a proposed $400 million class action against Uber to proceed in Ontario on the issue of whether drivers are misclassified as independent contractors.

At issue was the validity of Uber’s arbitration agreements for drivers in Canada. The agreement required drivers to arbitrate any disputes in Amsterdam, following the rules of the International Chamber of Commerce and Netherlands law. Wait. What? Yes.

And there’s this: Filing a case would cost a driver US $14,500 in up-front administrative fees.

The Court’s opinion called the arbitration clause “unconscionable,” and Uber responded by confirming to The Star that it planned to update its arbitration agreements accordingly.

Gig economy platforms are under attack in Ontario, much like in the U.S. Think of Ontario as Canada’s version of California or Massachusetts but with better access to poutine.

According to The Star, the Ontario labour relations board ruled earlier this year that couriers for a food delivery app were not true independent contractors and therefore had the right to join a union. Drivers using the Uber Black platform are also challenging their classification as contractors. American expats are challenging the use of a superfluous U by the labour relations board.

Lesson: If you’re going to require arbitration, be reasonable. Amsterdam might be a nice place to visit (see the Vondelpark!), but it’s too much of a stretch to require an Ontario rideshare driver to go there to file a claim. Next time, try Greenland?

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

2018_Web100Badge

 

Do Not Break Glass: Arbitration Clauses May Shatter in Agreements with Independent Contractor Delivery Drivers

largest-glass-blown-sculpture

Photo: CGTN/CFP

When your kids were little, did they ever run around in places they shouldn’t, causing you to fear what would happen if they broke something? Well you’re not alone. The world’s largest glass-blown sculpture sits in a museum in Shanghai. At least it did until recently. On May 30, two children accidentally broke it while running through the museum playing. There was a protective belt to try to prevent this sort of thing, but the kids ran right through it.

The moral of the story is that protective belts are not always good enough. The same is true when it comes to independent contractor agreements. One of the most useful protective belts we can install to protect against misclassification claims is a well-drafted arbitration clause with a class action waiver. That forces any independent contractor who claims to be an employee to fight that battle on an individual basis in front of an arbitrator. No court, no class action.

But this protective belt doesn’t always work, especially in the transportation industry.

Arbitration agreements with class action waivers work well in most industries. Under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), these agreements are generally enforceable, and they’ve saved many a large company from having to face gigantic misclassification class actions.

But the FAA has an exception. It doesn’t apply to transportation workers engaged in interstate commerce. There’s been lots of litigation over what that means and how broad the exception is.

A pair of decisions last week tried to address this question with respect to last-mile delivery drivers.

Both cases assumed the last-mile drivers were transportation workers engaged in interstate commerce, even though they generally did not cross state lines.  (We don’t know how the US Supreme Court would rule on that question). Since the FAA did not apply, the question then became whether the arbitration clauses and class action waivers were enforceable under state law.

Two courts, two cases, and two states resulted in two very different outcomes.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that arbitration agreements with delivery drivers are enforceable under New Jersey Arbitration Act, even if not under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).

But a federal appeals court took the opposite view of the same issue under Massachusetts law, ruling that a class action waiver in an arbitration clause is void because it is contrary to Massachusetts public policy.

So what does this mean for companies who use independent contractors in the transportation industry?

Depending on the facts and the court, the FAA might or might not apply. If the FAA does not apply, the question of whether the arbitration clause and class action waiver can be enforced will depend on state law.

That means companies need to be very careful in drafting their choice of law provisions and their severability clauses. If parts of the arbitration clause are unenforceable because of the class action waiver, will the whole clause be cut or just the class action waiver? If a court severs only the class action waiver, could you end up in class arbitration? The contract should also anticipate that possibility, and the arbitration clause should contain language prohibiting the arbitrator from hearing a class action. The effect of that clause would be to force the class action back to federal court. Most companies, if faced with a class action, would prefer to defend class claims in court rather than in arbitration.

These two cases highlight the importance of considering these issues when drafting independent contractor agreements in the transportation industry. While different state laws may lead to different outcomes, your contract should plan for the worst and be written to protect against the least desired outcome.

And if you are put in charge of security at a museum, try a better protective belt.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

2018_Web100Badge

Octopus vs. Bald Eagle: Postmates to Defend 5,225 Individual Arbitration Claims

Bald eagle octopus postmates

The best laid plans can sometimes take an unexpected turn for the worse. Just ask this octupus.

Earlier this month, off the coast of Vancouver Island, an octopus was settling down for a meal consisting of one whole bald eagle, freshly caught but still alive. A team of nearby salmon fishermen heard the bald eagle’s screams and, having been trained in speaking eagle, immediately recognized the distress call. The salmon fishermen sprang into action. They poked the soft-bodied mollusc with a pole until it released the bird. The eagle survived, and the fishermen got some footage that made it onto CNN’s website.

While I love octopi (delicious when grilled), I like to think that I too would have favored the eagle when interfering with a battle sponsored by mother nature.

The delivery app company Postmates is also dealing with an unexpected turn of events, but this one involves no sea creatures or birds of prey. In defending a claim of independent contractor misclassification brought by thousands of delivery drivers, Postmates prevailed in showing that the drivers were bound by arbitration agreements with class action waivers. If the drivers wanted to proceed, they would have to arbitrate their claims one-by-one, all 5,225 of them.

Guess what happened next.

The plaintiffs’ firm representing the drivers filed 5,225 individual arbitration claims with AAA.

Faced with having to pay $10 million in arbitration filing fees, Postmates has been trying to figure out how that would work. Can AAA even handle 5,225 simultaneous arbitrations? After Postmates missed an initial AAA payment deadline, the plaintiffs’ firm filed a motion to hold Postmates in contempt for not paying the AAA fees.

Postmates is now defending the contempt motion and trying to figure out, logistically, how to proceed.

Arbitration agreements can be helpful to businesses that have lots of independent contractors, mainly because the agreements can include class action waivers. But this dispute shows the potential downside of class action waivers. A sophisticated plaintiffs’ class action firm can file thousands of simultaneous arbitration demands, flooding the system and leaving the company on the hook for millions of dollars in filing fees alone — before even getting to the merits or defense of a claim.

We’ll see how this one plays out. It’s an unexpected turn of events, much like the octopus getting poked by an eagle-defending salmon fisherman at dinner time.

2018_Web100Badge

© 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!  

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

California’s New Anti-Arbitration Law: A Hotbed of Problems

California continues to be a hotbed of activity, which got me wondering: what is a hotbed? So I looked it up.

Hotbed – noun – hot·bed |  \ ˈhät-ˌbed

/a bed of soil enclosed in glass, heated especially by fermenting manure, and used for forcing or for raising seedlings/

And now you can decide which is more useful- knowing what a hotbed is or keeping up with the latest legislation in California that makes things harder for businesses.

The latest is AB51, which bans mandatory employee arbitration agreements if they are made a condition of employment. Voluntary arbitration agreements are still permitted.

So let’s just include an opt-out provision, right? That way there’s a choice, so it’s not mandatory. That would seem to make sense. Not so fast. The law says that if you include an opt-out provision, it still counts as mandatory. Huh? That’s contrary to the meaning of opt-out.

Opt – verb \ ˈäpt

/to make a choice/

If the option to opt-in is voluntary, then the option to opt-out is voluntary. Grammarians needed in California please.

The law is also probably illegal, except maybe for jobs in the transportation industry. According to the Supreme Court, the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) prohibits states from enacting laws that treat agreements to arbitrate differently than other agreements. If the parties agree to arbitrate, there’s an enforceable contract, and the states need to get out of the way. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but not by much. The FAA doesn’t apply to portions of the interstate transportation industry though, so the California law might be enforceable only as to that small segment of jobs. The enforceability of this law will be tested in the courts.

The law also creates a chicken-and-egg problem for independent contractor misclassification disputes. You can still require in an independent contractor agreement that an independent contractor must arbitrate disputes. And in that arbitration agreement, you can grant the arbitrator the authority to rule on any questions about enforceability of the arbitration agreement.

But what if the dispute is over whether the independent contractor is an employee? If the California law stands, then the agreement to arbitrate the dispute is enforceable only if the arbitrator rules that the contractor is properly classified as a contractor, but the agreement to arbitrate is unenforceable if the arbitrator rules that the contractor is misclassified and should really be an employee. But if the arbitrator rules that contractor was really an employee, then under California law the agreement granting the arbitrator the right to make that decision is void. You’d have to decide the ultimate issue — independent contractor s employee — before determining who decides whether the worker is a contractor or an employee.

Is your head spinning? Good. Just in time for Halloween.

Thanks California. You give me lots to write about.

This new law applies to employee arbitration agreements entered into after January 1, 2020– unless it’s not enforceable at all. We’ll see.

2018_Web100Badge

© 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!  

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.