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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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Mixed Messages, Misclassification, and My Visit to Ohio E-Check: Just Another Day on My Way to the Office

Independent contractor misclassification e-check mixed messages

Yesterday I was at Ohio E-check. When they use their fancy vehicle emissions testing equipment, they ask you to get out of your car and wait in a small glass-walled waiting area. Inside there are two signs. The first says: “Ohio E-Check. No cell phones!”  The second says: “Ohio E-Check. How are we doing? To comment, use this QR code.”

Regrettably, I complied with the first sign, so I do not have a picture for you of the two signs. (While waiting, I tried like hell to memorize that QR code!)

When waiting for E-Check, mixed messages are funny. When retaining independent contractors, however, mixed messages are no joke. If enough signs suggest that a contractor is really an employee, the risk of a misclassification finding is heightened, and the consequences of misclassification can be severe.

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Poor Planning Dooms Pet Owner; Good Planning Saves GrubHub’s Arbitration Agreement

35D2D59B-89A6-40D6-8727-7C4C7D87BC9Findependent contractor arbitration agreement GrubHub Wallace

Why did the cassowary cross the road? To get to the other side.

Careful planning and foresight are important. For example, it would have been a good idea for a Gainesville, Florida man to have read up a little more on cassowaries before choosing to own one as a pet. A cassowary is a large flightless bird that grows up to six feet tall and can weigh 130 pounds. It has a four-inch claw on each foot, used to slice open its prey. (Infomercial: It’s both a fork and a knife!) The bird has powerful legs that it can use to kill its prey with a single kick — or chase it down by running at speeds up to 30 mph. Think Big Bird meets Edward Scissorhands meets pissed-off hungry crocodile in a go-cart.

Anyway, some guy in Gainesville bought one as a pet. It promptly killed him. Poor planning. I would have recommended a labradoodle.

A better example of planning ahead is GrubHub and its independent contractor arbitration agreements.

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The Stones, the Dalai Lama, and Arbitration: How Not to Get What You Need in an Arbitration Agreement

BF593720-B1EE-47D2-93A0-7B0AE09D5C33

Not Mick Jagger

You can’t always get what you want, said a wise English sage in 1969. This advice still holds true. For example, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang recently declared that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama must comply with Chinese law.  Good luck with that.

The enforcement mechanism for Lu’s edict is unclear, but the Chinese Communist Party knows what it wants. (Allow me a brief diversion. My favorite sentence in the cnn.com story: “It isn’t completely clear whether the Dalai Lama will allow himself to be reincarnated after he dies.”  You and me both, brother!)

Another example arose in a recent court case, in which a messenger service required its independent contractor messengers to sign an arbitration agreement. Like spokesman Lu, the messenger service may have demanded a bit too much. A California Court of Appeal declared the arbitration agreement invalid, ruling that it was both procedural and substantively unconscionable.

What makes an arbitration agreement so one-sided that it’s unconscionable?

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Don’t be a Hirtle: Here’s Why You Should Avoid “Works Made for Hire” Clauses in Independent Contractor Agreements

independent contractor works made for hireDon’t shoot yourself in the foot, Adam Hirtle of Colorado Springs. It’s an expression, not a thing to do with a real firearm. According to this article, Hirtle did it because he wanted to see how it felt. Presumably: Bad.

Shooting yourself in the foot is something many companies may be doing when trying to protect their intellectual property in independent contractor agreements. Generally, there are two ways to protect copyright: “works made for hire” and assignment.

Many independent contractor agreements use both. Intellectual property clauses often say that anything created by the independent contractor is a “work made for hire,” which would mean that the company — not the individual — owns the copyright. These clauses will also typically say that anything not deemed a “work made for hire” is assigned to the company. This is supposed to be a belt-and-suspenders way to ensure that the company owns the intellectual property created by the independent contractor.

Did you know that clause can turn the contractor into an employee?

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Has Ontario Gone Loony? Court Rejects Independent Contractor Arbitration Agreement

Common loon Ontario

Our northern neighbor, the common loon. Photo from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

According to OntarioTravel.net, Ontario’s official bird is the Common Loon. The loon is a water bird, regarded as an agile swimmer and a connosseur of the fine fish that populate Ontario’s lakes.

Loon has a second, seemingly unrelated definition too, though. According to dictionary.com, synonyms for “loony” include screwball, wacky, kooky, nutty, crazed, batty, lunatic, cuckoo, nuts, silly, psycho, berserk, ape, barmy, bonkers, cracked, daffy, daft, delirious, and demented.

For fans of arbitration agreements, a recent decision by the Ontario Court of Appeals might be regarded as a bit loony (using the non-water-bird definition). Ontario has generally been considered a province friendly to arbitration agreements. In Heller v. Uber Technologies, Inc., the court found Uber’s stock arbitration agreement to be invalid Continue reading

Five Easy New Years’ Resolutions for Companies That Use Independent Contractors

new years resolutions

Now that the hangover has worn off and the calories have not, it’s time for 2019 New Years’ Resolutions. I know you didn’t ask for help, but you also didn’t not ask.

Here are some suggestions for those of you whose companies rely on independent contractors:

  1. Do you have one of those doorbells you can answer from anywhere? So do I. That’s because we’re cautious (syn., paranoid). Be similarly cautious that your non-legal, non-HR co-workers in management might retain independent contractors without your knowledge. Unleash your inner Anita Ward and make them Ring Your Bell. Set up a gatekeeper system that requires everyone to go through you before they can retain a non-employee worker. But don’t aim little cameras at their desks or you will lose friends.
  2. Update your Independent Contractor Agreements, even if you haven’t been sued yet. I am reminded of the time Bart Simpson exclaimed, “This is the worst day of my life!” and the wise yogi, Homer, responded helpfully, “–the worst day of your life so far.” (Here’s the clip.) Be prepared for if/when you are sued. Use the contract to highlight the facts that support independent contractor status. Be prepared.
  3. Don’t walk slowly in airports. This is (arguably) not directly related to the use of independent contractors, but it is important nonetheless because it drives everyone bonkers when people do it.
  4. Include arbitration clauses with class action waivers. In an alternative universe, your company has been sued by all of your independent contractors in a class action. In your reality, the contractor’s requirement to go at it alone in arbitration convinces your contractor that it’s not worth the effort to sue you, making you — who inserted the arbitration clause — the hero!
  5. Try this exercise: Do a simple self-audit. Check your company’s list of 1099 recipients for 2018 and see how many are individuals with SSNs, rather than entities with EINs. A long list with the names of a lot of individuals may be a sign that there are some independent contractor issues. That little exercise won’t burn off a single cookie, but it’s nonetheless a simple way to try to get a sense of how many independent contractors your business may have. The number is often greater than people realize.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2019!

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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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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