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?

Yikes! Did your company accidentally do a Hirtle?

California law says that if a contract with an individual includes a “work made for hire” clause, that individual is a statutory employee for purposes of California unemployment law, workers compensation law, and aspects of employment law. A company that fails to comply with unemployment, workers comp, and other state employment laws may be subject to penalties, litigation, and other plagues, including but not limited to blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and killing of the first born.

The culprits are California Labor Code section 3351.5(c), and California Unemployment Insurance Code sections 621(d) and 686. Pharaohs not included.

The easiest way to avoid this self-inflicted wound is to impose an automatic assignment (a present assignment) of the author’s copyright to the company. Note that the assignment should be automatic. It’s not enough merely to require that the author/contractor assign the work in the future.

Under copyright law, there are some long-term differences between “works made for hire” and assigned works, relating to rights in the work after a number of years, so the assignment solution is not perfect. But it’s probably better than accidentally causing your independent contractor relationship to revert to employment under California law.

Also, just because you say that something is a “work made for hire” doesn’t mean that it is. The Copyright Act defines “work made for hire” to include works created by employees and a short list of other situations, many of which will not cover whatever you’ve retained the independent contractor to do.

Here’s the definition, from 17 U.S.C. § 101:

A “work made for hire” is—

(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or

(2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.

Intellectual property clauses should be carefully drafted. Using boilerplate language can cause unexpected pain. Don’t do it like Hirtle — just to see how it feels.

Check your intellectual property clauses.

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

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For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in 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.

“So Tired of Being Alone”? Blogger Managers at SB Nation Claim Independent Contractor Misclassification

Bloggers independent contractor misclassificationThe good reverend and crooner Al Green was “so tired of being alone,” but he sang it in a way that made me want to keep listening. Stay solo, Rev. Al. On a more somber note, The Motels’ song, Only the Lonely is depressing. Why can only the lonely play? Everyone should be able to play.

Blogging can be a lonely endeavor. Bloggers write and push out content, hoping people will read. Fortunately for me it’s just a side gig, but for many it’s a way of life.

A lawsuit involving bloggers at SB Nation serves as a reminder that bloggers’ status as independent contractors is subject to challenge. In this case, three blogger/site managers allege that, despite their independent contractor agreements (Blogger Agreements), they were really employees entitled to overtime pay. According to the plaintiffs, site managers are required to watch games and report on breaking news on their assigned teams.

In a recent decision, the federal district court granted conditional certification to the proposed class of all site managers and managing editors. In proposed class actions, conditional certification is often easily granted. The bar to conditional certification is low. That means companies who classify their bloggers as independent contractors can be subjected to the hassle and expense of written discovery, depositions, and litigation — just to determine whether a class can proceed. And that’s before litigation on the merits of a misclassification claim.

Litigation involving alleged independent contractor misclassification can be a long and expensive slog. Depositions, deposition prep, and document discovery involve lots of people’s time and attention, none of whom will be lonely. Everyone at the company who was involved in classification, oversight, and pay decisions may have to play — all of which means The Motels were wrong. So there. Next time write a more upbeat song.

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

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For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in 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.

Which States Are Trying to Kill “Independent Contractors” to Death? (Hint: One Rhymes with Schmalifornia)

Man Killed to Death - independent contractor misclassification

Only 4:34 am and already it’s gonna be a long day in the newsroom.

The tests for Independent Contractor vs. Employee vary state-by-state, law-by-law.

In some states, it’s particularly hard to show that an independent contractor relationship is real. These states want to call everyone an employee, even if the parties have agreed to classify the relationship as an independent contractor relationship. When it comes to independent contractor classification, these are the states that are killing it to death.

Like the poor guy who was the subject of this local news story. Getting killed to death — that’s gotta be one of the worst ways to die.

The Top Three Hardest States to Be Independent Contractors, from my vantage point, are:

  • California (obviously)
  • Massachusetts (also obviously), and
  • New Jersey (there’s a new Jersey?)

That’s because each of these states applies an ABC Test when determining whether someone is an independent contractor or an employee under state wage and hour laws. California and Massachusetts use a stricter ABC Test. New Jersey’s ABC Test is not quite as demanding, but close.

If I have piqued your interest (or if you feel obligated), these posts provide more information about ABC Tests in general and more about California’s ABC Test.

This post discusses other states that use ABC Tests but for other types of laws, like workers compensation and unemployment.

And if you want to click on just one more thing, this post describes what happened when police officers in Minnesota were called to investigate a man standing motionless in the freezing cold, holding a pillow.

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

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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

“Flooding” Tactic Creates New Risk for Using Mandatory Arbitration Agreements with Independent Contractors

flood arbitration independent contractorsIn the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, a world-engulfing flood destroys everyone except Noah, his family, and his mini zoo. A similar story appears in the Quran, and a much earlier world-engulfing flood was described in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian poem dating back to the 19th Century BC, featuring Utnapishtim as our hero, a fellow who was awarded with immortality but whose name (unfortunately, IMHO) appears much less frequently on the Social Security Administration’s list of most popular baby names than our more recent pal, Noah.

A more recent trend in flooding comes from our friends in the plaintiffs’ bar. A popular tactic by companies wishing to avoid class action misclassification lawsuits has been to require independent contractors to sign arbitration agreements with class action waivers. These agreements force misclassification clams into arbitration on an individual basis, where each individual single claim has little value. By forcing claims into individual arbitration, there’s much less incentive for plaintiffs’ lawyers to take these cases since each case is worth very little. It’s only in the class action arena that these claims are worth big money.

But according to a recent article in Bloomberg Law, some of the larger, more organized plaintiffs’ firms are fighting back by flooding companies with mass arbitration filings. Continue reading

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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Do Pre-Employment Laws Apply When Running Background Checks on Independent Contractors? (Tip: Instead, Just Ask Edward)

Time traveller independent contractor background check requirements

A time traveler named “Edward” claims to have photographic proof that he is visiting from 5,000 years in the future. According to Metro UK, he described his experience as “unbelievable.” Ponder that.

One of the benefits of time travel is that you’d know if your workers are going commit crimes in the future that could jeopardize your company. With people like Edward in short supply, we are instead forced to try to predict future behavior through more widely accepted methods, like reading tarot cards or performing background checks. (Free tip: pick the latter.)

There are federal and state laws that strictly regulate the processes and procedures for running pre-employment background checks. A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision last week highlights the importance of following all technical requirements, including that employers provide a “clear and conspicuous disclosure” that they may run a background check and that the disclosure is “in a document that consists solely of the disclosure.” In that decision, the court ruled that it’s illegal to provide a disclosure that includes state law disclosures on the same page as the federal disclosure. It is common for employers to combine these disclosures on the same form, so check your forms! I blogged about the ruling here, on BakerHostetler’s Employment Class Action blog.

In contrast, the rules for running background checks on independent contractors are not as strict. The federal law requiring a stand alone disclosure applies only to reports being run “for employment purposes.” Same thing for the pre-adverse action notification requirement. It applies only to reports that are run “for employment purposes.”

Interpreting the “for employment purposes” language, at least three federal courts have ruled that a report on a prospective independent contractor is not being run “for employment purposes” and, therefore, these requirements do not apply to reports being run on independent contractors. (The FTC has issued guidance that the “for employment purposes” requirements do apply to independent contractors, but the courts have so far rejected this guidance as being inconsistent with the language of the statute.)

Some of the requirements in the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) may still apply, depending on the purpose of the report, but the bottom line is that the rules are different for background checks being run on employees and independent contractors. The FCRA is somewhat complicated, and don’t forget the patchwork of state laws.

There’s also the risk of misclassification — that the independent contractor could be deemed an employee — in which case the FCRA and state law requirements for pre-employment background checks would need to be followed, and the failure to follow them can be costly. The FCRA allows for statutory damages of $100 to $1,000 per violation, plus attorneys’ fees.

So if you’re afraid of a misclassification claim should you just follow the “for employment purposes” requirements anyway? Not necessarily. Though it can be prudent to follow some of the technical disclosure and pre-adverse action requirements that apply to pre-employment checks, be careful about using any forms with independent contractors that say the background check is being run “for employment purposes.” In other words, the forms you are using for pre-employment background checks might not be suitable for use with independent contractors.

This earlier blog post discusses more of the issues (and potential risks) related to running background checks on independent contractors.

There are plenty of good reasons to run background checks on some types of contractors, particularly those who will be entering customers’ homes. The goal, of course, is to try to predict the risk of future wrongdoing. Background checks can be useful for that purpose.

But the only surefire way to know what is going to happen in the future is to ask Edward.

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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