Not Dead Yet: Arbitration Agreements May Sit Dormant, But They Can Still Save You From a Class/Collective Action

Not dead yet. @SCMPNews

This spring has been a bad time for injured civilians who prefer not to be buried alive.

In Peru last month, a funeral procession was interrupted when the 36-year old car accident victim was heard banging on the lid of her coffin, trying to get out. Days earlier the woman had been pronounced dead, in what turned out to be an unfortunate mispronunciation.

In Shanghai, a nursing home mourned the passing of an elderly resident, who was placed in a body bag and sent to the mortuary. As seen in this video taken by a bystander, the mortuary workers unzipped the bag and found the man still moving. He was transferred to a hospital, which seems to me like a more appropriate place for someone still alive.

People may go quiet, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated as dead. The same holds true for individual arbitration agreements. They may exist quietly in the background, but courts can’t just ignore them, as a recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision made clear.

A plaintiff alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), claiming she was misclassified as an independent contractor and therefore was denied overtime pay. She asked the court to treat her lawsuit as a collective action, claiming that other contractors were also misclassified and were also denied overtime pay. In FLSA cases, plaintiffs have to opt in to join the class. The district court approved the distribution of opt-in notices to similarly situated contractors, letting them know about the lawsuit and their right to participate.

The defendant opposed the notices, pointing out that the contractors had all signed individual arbitration agreements that included class action waivers. They couldn’t opt in, the defendant argued, so they should not get the notice. When the court approved the notices anyway, the defendant filed a writ of mandamus with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the appeals court to intervene and stop the notices from going out.

The Fifth Circuit granted the writ and stopped the notices from going out. The Court of Appeals ruled that the arbitration agreements required all disputes to be resolved through individual arbitration, and therefore the contractors could not opt in to the lawsuit. Since they could not opt in, they could not be sent notices inviting them to opt in.

It’s unusual for a Court of Appeals to grant a writ of mandamus. But here, the Court of Appeals recognized that the arbitration agreements were very much alive, even if the contractors who signed them were silent in the background.

This case is a good reminder of the value of individual arbitration agreements with class action waivers. A well-drafted arbitration agreement will require all claims to be resolved on an individual basis and will include a waiver of the right to participate in any class or collective action. The agreement should also deprive the arbitrator of jurisdiction to preside over a class or collective action.

Businesses that rely on independent contractors should check their agreements and consider adding robust, carefully-drafted arbitration clauses.

Arbitration agreements can sit silently in the background for years, but that doesn’t mean they are dead.

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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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Famed Miami Nightspot Gets Hit with $15 Misclassification Verdict

I grew up in Miami, but not this Miami. My weekends were Miami Jai-alai and Coconut Grove, certainly not the hip hop adult club scene.

But if I had grown up in that other world, I might have heard of the King of Diamonds, which I am now aware was the place to be seen if you are looking to spot celebrities at a famous adult entertainment venue. According to Miami newspaper archives, the original club went bankrupt in 2018 after failing to pay its mortgage and its rent. This came on the heels (high heels?) of being cited for serious safety code violations, including malfunctioning fire sprinklers.

Making matters worse, at about the same time, 27 of the club’s dancers sued, alleging wage and hour violations and that they had been illegally misclassified as independent contractors.

The case was delayed because of COVID-19, but it finally went to trial last fall, and the jury agreed that the dancers had been misclassified. Two weeks ago, the judge entered a final judgment, awarding the dancers more than $15 million. Some of the dancers’ individual awards exceeded $800,000.

The takeaway here is that independent contractor misclassification claims are big dollar claims. The defendants in this case drew more attention than usual because of the high profile of their club, but the legal risks apply to any business making widespread use of contractors.

Remember, it’s the law that decides whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee. It doesn’t matter what the parties call the relationship or what the written contract says.

The club (or, a club with essentially the same name) reopened in 2020 with new ownership. I don’t know whether they’ve changed the classification and pay structure of their performers, but that would seem like a good idea. They’ll want to keep the place up and running in case Floyd Mayweather comes back with his infamous Money Truck to drop $100,000 on an evening’s entertainment.

For some other wild tales at the old joint, you can read more here.

I was oblivious to that whole scene growing up, but I sure had some great times at Miami Jai Alai (video highlights from 1980s), rooting for Michelena, Benny, and Harretche, and hoping to hit on my trifecta. Good times.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Nowhere to Run: New Case Serves as Reminder That FLSA Misclassification Settlements are Very Public

I just got back from running in a 200-mile relay, Muskegon to Traverse City, with a group of college friends. I ran three legs of 4, 4, and 5 miles. I had the easiest set of three legs among the 12 runners, but I’m happy just to have finished. It was great to see everyone, and I was able to disconnect from work life for a few days.

So, what I’m saying here is, I had a better weekend than the guys I’m about to write about. And for them, there’s no running away from their problems.

In yet another exotic dancer case to hit the news, the performers at King’s Inn Premier Gentlemen’s Club in Massachusetts are about to score a $292,000 settlement in a claim that they were misclassified as independent contractors. A hearing to approve the settlement is scheduled for this week.

There seem to be a lot of exotic dancer cases in the annals of independent contractor misclassification, and the clubs seem to lose their fair share of these cases. This case, like most of the dancer cases, is a wage and hour case. The dancers claimed they were denied a minimum wage and overtime pay, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The club claimed the dancers were independent contractors and therefore were not covered under the FLSA.

But why do you care about a strip club exotic dancers case? Two reasons:

  • First, the Economic Realities Test is alive and well, and it applies to all industries.
  • Second, any settlement of an FLSA lawsuit must be approved, and it becomes public record.

You can read more about the first point here, in a collection of posts about this test and how it is used to determine whether someone is an employee.

The second point deserves a bit more attention, though. Most types of litigation can be settled in a private settlement agreement. An FLSA case cannot be. The law requires the settlement of an FLSA case to be approved by a judge, and there is a public hearing at which the settlement terms are considered.

Once you get sued for an FLSA violation, it’s very hard to get out of it with anything resembling confidentiality. This is the kind of claim you want to avoid in the first place.

How do you avoid an FLSA claim when you have independent contractors?

  • Be proactive. Evaluate your relationships using the Economic Realities Test and see if they hold up.
  • Review your contracts and see if they can be adjusted to better memorialize the facts that support independent contractor status.
  • Consider obtaining representations from the contractors up front to determine whether they really do operate independently.

Don’t wait until its too late to take action. You can’t just run away from an FLSA case.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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“There was boxes back there”: How a flood and a healthy dose of incompetence sank a strip club’s plan to force a dancer into arbitration

Independent contractor

Nope. Not that Godfather.

Forgive me in advance if I sound condescending. And skeptical. And incredulous. But above all, I am amused.

This is the story of a strip club called the Godfather. When one of its dancers, a young lassie named Tassy, tried to sue, alleging that she had been misclassified as an independent contractor, the Godfather asked the court to send her claims to arbitration, as required under the Godfather’s dancer agreement.

But the Godfather had one small problem. It could not produce the agreement because, it claimed, the agreement was washed out in a flood caused by a rusted-out water heater in the back room. As everyone knows, the flood-prone back room with the rusted-out water heater is the best place for storing corporate legal documents. (Note to self: update template document retention guidelines.) Preferably, as the Godfather did, store them in unmarked boxes with no index or system for determining exactly what was in the boxes. But Tassy’s agreement was in there. They’re pretty sure, anyway.

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Strippers Say They’re Losing Their Shirts Due to Misclassification Wins

Dancers independent contractor misclassification

Strippers and gentleman’s clubs are well-known for many things. I’m referring, of course, to independent contractor misclassification lawsuits. 

Clubs often classify their performers as independent contractors and, after a string of lawsuits alleging misclassification, some clubs are shedding prior pay practices and reclassifying dancers as employees.

And everyone lived happily ever after. The end.

But this is litigation land, not a fairy tale, and plaintiffs’ lawyers still need to make money. Some of the reclassified dancers are finding that the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence. In other words, being an employee stripper (instead of an independent contractor stripper) still ain’t that great. So they sued again.

In a lawsuit filed last week in California, a group of dancers complain that when their clubs reclassified them as employees, the clubs “began implementing a new compensation system for the dancers, which substantially reduced their pay – often by a difference of hundreds of dollars or more per shift.” 

The dancers say that’s illegal retaliation. I’d say it’s math. 

The cost of doing business just increased drastically. Treating workers as employees means that the business incurs new expenses — payroll taxes, unemployment premiums, workers’ compensation coverage, possibly overtime premiums, and in California, meal and rest breaks and reimbursement for business expenses. 

The lawsuit is pending in the Superior Court for San Diego County. 

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in 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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Arbitration Agreements Can Prevent Discovery of Other Class Members

McGrew independent contractor collective action sixth circuit court of appeals

An old Canadian poem called “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” tells the tale of a Yukon Gold Rush prospector (McGrew), his sweetheart “Lou,” and a stranger who buys drinks for everyone in the saloon, plays a sad song on the piano, then shoots McGrew, who also shoots the stranger, and everyone dies except Lou, who gets McGrew’s gold. You can read a summary here.

This post is about a different McGrew, who doesn’t get any gold.

This McGrew is an exotic dancer in Kentucky. She filed a lawsuit alleging independent contractor misclassification, an issue that was mildly less prevalent during the Yukon Gold Rush. Melissa McGrew had an arbitration agreement but filed a lawsuit anyway, trying at least to get the court to grant conditional certification and require all potential class members to be notified of the lawsuit and their opportunity to bring claims.

No way, said the district court; and no way said the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals, guided by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Epic Systems case, ruled that because arbitration agreements are enforceable, a plaintiff can’t first try to take advantage of collective action notice procedures in court. Arbitration means no court, which means no collective action notice procedures.

This is not a surprising ruling, but it’s an important reminder of another benefit to businesses of arbitration agreements with class action waivers.

Not only can businesses prevent class action litigation, but they can also prevent the procedures that would result in notifying all potential class members.

In this case, McGrew got no gold, and her lawyers got no list.

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

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Exotic Dance Marathon Ends with $4.5 Million Misclassification Award

Dollar independent contractor misclassification millionsThe Penthouse Club of Philadelphia was hit with a $4.5 million jury award for having misclassified its dancers as independent contractors. This case was filed in 2013, and the federal court just recently entered the judgment order.

For those of you seeking business lessons from stripper lawsuits, today is your lucky day!

The dancers had alleged that they were treated as employees but not paid as employees. For example, they alleged that the club required them to work a set number of hours and days each week, required them to comply with physical appearance guidelines, and took deductions from their tips for what we’ll call special kinds of dances.

The Club fought hard for five years but could not overcome the negative facts in the case. Remember, the determination of whether someone is an employee or a true independent contractor is not based on what the parties agree. It’s based on the facts of the relationship.

This was primarily a Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit, and so the Economic Realities Test is used. Other laws apply a Right to Control Test. Some states use a more difficult ABC Test.

Independent contractor misclassification lawsuits can be a tremendous liability, and businesses using contractors should be proactive and set up the relationship in a way that will withstand a challenge. When a business maintains control over hours, days of work, worker appearance, location of work, and other aspects of how the work is performed, the relationship starts to resemble employment.

In this case, the Club not only is on the hook for $4.5 million. They had to pay their attorneys’ fees, they’ll continue to pay their attorneys’ fees if they appeal, and they had to slog through six years of painful, time-consuming litigation that was undoubtedly a distraction from the business of running whatever type of classy joint they have going there. [Note to wife: I did not do any onsite investigation.]

We’ve seen lots of activity lately in the field of “exotic dancing.” I mean misclassification activity, and lawsuit activity, just to be clear on what I’ve been “seeing.” See other multi-million dollar misclassification awards here and here, all of which are SFW.

Businesses that use independent contractors need to evaluate the facts of the relationship and need to be proactive in setting up the facts to support true independent contractor status. Those who fail may get an extra long high-heeled kick in the rear.

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

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Strip Clubs Nailed for $8.5 Million in Settlement of Independent Contractor Misclassification Claims

Independent contractor misclassification settlement $8.5 million spearmint rhinoI learned there’s a chain of strip clubs called the Spearmint Rhino. I didn’t know that was an option for rhinos. The rhinos I’ve seen at the zoo smell nothing like spearmint.

This club was paying its dancers as independent contractors. As we’ve seen in other “exotic dancer” cases, that can be an expensive decision.

This time it cost The Rhino $8.5 million. A class of 8,000 ladies reached a deal after claiming they should have been treated as employees under Caliufornia and federal wage and hour laws. The class members claimed they were denied overtime, denied a minimum wage, denied meal and rest breaks, and had their tips misappropriated.

In other words, they didn’t feel like they had much to dance about.

What happens now to The Rhino? Does it reclassify its dancers as employees? Who knows. Who cares.

I will, however, be asking the zoo if there’s anything they can do about the rhino smell. It seems there may be a minty version of the beast.

 

For more information on independent contractor issues and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2018, join me in Cincinnati on March 28 for the 2018 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: A Time for Change. Attendance is complimentary, but advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com, and list my name in your RSVP so I can be sure to look for you.

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

Misclassification settlement strips $6 million from Club Assets

IMG_1090When I was an undergrad at Michigan, any time I would drive to the airport or to Tiger Stadium, I’d see billboards for Deja Vu, a strip club with (apparently) lots of locations. I never visited (not into that sort of thing, thanks for asking), and I never thought much of it. I certainly did not expect to be writing about Deja Vu and independent contractor misclassification 25 years later. But here goes.

When patrons of these fine establishments partake in the traditional lap dance, it’s doubtful they’re thinking about whether these often-single-mom “entertainers” who are just trying to make a living have been properly classified under wage and hour law. More likely, they’re thinking about — never mind.

But that’s an important issue, as Deja Vu recently learned, when it was sued by a class of 28,177 dancers alleging they were misclassified as independent contractors, rather than Continue reading

Independent Contractor vs. Employee, Hit List by Industry, 2016-2017

img_1044Are you on the hit list?

The highest concentration of independent contractor misclassification lawsuits during the past 12 months seem to be in these areas:

  • Agricultural workers
  • Beauty consultants (sales)
  • Cable installers
  • Car services (passengers, ride-hailing services)
  • Computer programmers
  • Construction workers
  • Consultants (various industries)
  • Couriers
  • Delivery drivers (food, goods, freight)
  • Exotic dancers (strippers)
  • Freelance writer/reporters/other journalism
  • Information technology workers
  • Installers (cabinets, appliances, windows, furniture)
  • Insurance sales representatives
  • Janitorial franchise owners (individuals)
  • Maintainance workers
  • Newspaper carriers
  • Performers (actors, cheerleaders, wrestlers)
  • Physicians
  • Property inspection services
  • Repair technicians
  • Sales representatives
  • Travel agents
  • Truck drivers
  • Yoga instructors

This list should not in any way suggest that the categories of workers in this list should be employees. That determination will depend on the facts in any given situation. All of these types of workers, however, have been plaintiffs in recent lawsuits alleging that they were misclassified as independent contractors and should have been deemed employees.

Companies who retain these types of workers as independent contractors should take proactive steps to evaluate the facts in these relationships, particularly under the variety of federal and state law tests that may apply. Companies should also remember that because different tests apply to different laws, workers may be properly classified as independent contractors under some laws and some tests, but may be deemed employees under other laws and other tests.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.