Long Songs: After 12 Years, Court Certifies Class in Independent Contractor Misclassification Dispute

I like long songs. For the last several weeks, I have been starting my workday with the Pink Floyd album Atom Heart Mother on my headphones. The opening track is 23 minutes, and the album ends with “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” a 13-minute journey that includes lines like “um, flakes” and “marmalade, I like marmalade.”

Long litigation, on the other hand – I’m not a fan. When I was an associate, I worked on a healthcare fraud case that lasted about 8 years. Not fun.

The legal team at Sleepy’s LLC probably doesn’t like long litigation either. Hargrove v. Sleepy’s LLC is an independent contractor misclassification case that was filed in 2010. The case has been to the Third Circuit twice already and went to the New Jersey Supreme Court on the certified question of what test should be used to determine employee status under New Jersey wage and hour law. I wrote about that 2015 ruling here in a post that also takes an admiring look at one menu option at an ice cream parlor in Dania Beach, Florida. (Partial spoiler: ABC Test. But you’ll have to read the post to see about the menu option.)

This case is back in the news after a new set of rulings.

After 12 years, the court issued a decision last week to grant class certification and to deny the defendant’s motions to dismiss. These are issues that are typically resolved in the first several months of a case.

The point here is to show you how long and complicated an independent contractor misclassification case can become. This is not straightforward litigation, and there are so many legal issues that can dominate the underlying dispute — questions, for example, about class certification, class size, jurisdiction, standing, and which legal test to use for deciding whether misclassification exists.

This case is a good reminder of the importance of getting your independent contractor arrangements reviewed and your contracts revised. Preventive steps taken now can help avoid lengthy litigation later. Lengthy litigation is no fun for anyone.

But I do like long songs, and if you pay close attention, you can appreciate the careful and elaborate construction of a track. Put on your headphones if you want to catch every subtle sound.

And marmalade. I like marmalade.

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

© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

2018_Web100Badge
 

Upside Down? U.S. Companies Can Learn from Australian High Court Ruling on Independent Contractors

Source: Hema Maps

There’s no reason our maps are oriented the way they are, with Australia at the bottom and Canada near the top. There’s no right side up in space, and we could just as easily think of the world with Australia on top, in the middle.

Same with our way of deciding Who Is My Employee? The process for determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor doesn’t have to be the way Americans conduct that analysis.

Two High Court decisions this month in Australia highlight a key difference between the American approach and what is now the new Australian approach.

In the U.S., courts look past the written contract and analyze a worker’s status based on the actual facts of the relationship.

The Australian High Court says the U.S. approach is upside down.

In two highly publicized decisions, the Australian court ruled that the contract establishes the rules of the relationship and therefore also determines the worker’s status. In one case, the agreement said the work would be controlled by the hiring party. By contractually reserving the right to control the work, the hiring party inadvertently made the worker an employee. The court still looked past the fact that the parties called the worker an independent contractor, but the court said the contractual requirements of the relationship — the terms and conditions — controlled the outcome.

The other High Court case involved two truck drivers. Their contracts exhaustively set forth terms preserving their flexibility to work for others and to control how their work was performed. Their contracts also called for the drivers to use their own equipment, which involved a significant investment by the drivers. The court overruled a lower court decision that deemed the workers to be employees. The lower court focused on actual control exerted by the hiring party. But the High Court said the contract controls and, in this case, the contract established requirements consistent with independent contractor status. It is up to the parties to follow the contract, but the contract establishes the independent contractor relationship.

There are lessons for American companies here too.

While under U.S. law, the actual facts of the relationship control whether the worker is an employee, the independent contractor agreement is an opportunity to memorialize the helpful facts. That’s why off-the-shelf templates in the U.S. are of no value. (Hot tip: Google & Bing is not a law firm.) See related posts here and here, including how to discomfit a bear.

An independent contractor agreement in the U.S. should be drafted with the particular facts of the relationship in mind. Does the worker get to decide when and where the work is done? If so, put that in the contract. The worker controls when and where the work is performed, and the hiring party has no right to control when and where.

If the worker’s status is challenged, you want the contract to be a helpful piece of evidence. You want to be able to say to a court: Not only does the worker get to decide when and where the work is done (or insert other factor), but the contract forbids us from controlling that.

In the U.S., contract terms like that will be persuasive evidence, but only if the actual facts align. In Australia, the contract sets the rules, and the parties are in breach if they fail to follow the rules established in the contract.

But no matter where you sit, and no matter which way your map is aligned, companies should view independent contractor agreements as an opportunity to build the case that an independent contractor is properly classified.

By planning ahead and drafting carefully, you can maximize your chances of coming out on top.

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

© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

2018_Web100Badge
 

Giving the Cold Shoulder: Court Denies ERISA Misclassification Claim Because Contractor Was “Not a Participant”

Mutton: Not the origin of the term.

The term cold shoulder originated with Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott in the early 19th century. A commonly repeated but incorrect origin story says that welcome houseguests were given a hot meal, but those who were not welcome would get a cold shoulder of mutton. But Scott’s use of the phrase had nothing to do with food. He described “shewing o’ the cauld shouther” as a physical gesture, turning the shoulder away from someone in a cold or indifferent manner.

No matter the origin, a federal judge in California recently showed some seriously cold shoulder to an independent contractor seeking ERISA benefits. The case shows the importance of a well drafted complaint in a misclassification lawsuit and highlights an important defense.

Tim Alders worked for YUM! Brands and Taco Bell for 25 years as an independent contractor. He then filed a lawsuit claiming he was misclassified.

He sued under ERISA, alleging that he should have been treated as an employee. He claimed that if he had been treated as an employee, he would have been a “participant” in YUM’s retirement plans, incentive plans, 401(k) plan, and executive income deferral program. Had he been a participant, he would have received financial benefits that he did not receive as a contractor.

Under ERISA, however, civil actions may only be brought by plan participants, beneficiaries, or the Secretary of Labor. ERISA defines a “participant” as “any employee or former employee of an employer . . . who is or may become eligible to receive a benefit of any type from an employee benefit plan which covers employees of such employer . . . or whose beneficiaries may be eligible to receive any such benefit.”

As YUM argued in its motion to dismiss, Alder could not sue under ERISA because he was not a “participant.” Judge Phillip Gutierrez, with a wink and a nod to Joseph Heller, agreed and dismissed the case. The plaintiff never got to argue whether he was misclassified or not.

The decision relied on past rulings, including this synopsis of ERISA law by a different California federal judge: “[U]nder Ninth Circuit authority, a claim that a former employee plaintiff should have been included in a plan, but actually was not included in a plan, does not give [the] plaintiff a ‘colorable claim to vested benefits’ for ERISA standing purposes.”

That’s some serious cauld shouther.

This case is a reminder that there are a lot of ways to defend a misclassification case. The “not a participant” defense is a valuable tool and should be used when appropriate.

But don’t be fooled. This ruling does not mean that a misclassified contractor can never sue for employee benefits. Remember too that this is unpublished case by one district court. Let’s not give it too much weight as precedent. There have been many class actions, some highly publicized, in which in which misclassified contractors took home lots of cash (many millions of dollars) as a result of being denied employee benefits.

One more thing before you go. There’s one easy step that companies should take now, before facing a misclassification lawsuit. Companies should check their plans to make sure the plan eligibility language protects specifically against misclassification claims. This post, featuring a reggae cucumber, provides the magic language you should be including in your plan documents.

If you plan properly, you too can give the cauld shouther.

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

© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

2018_Web100Badge
 

Twilight Zone? AFL-CIO Says “Not Now,” as NLRB Considers Redo of Independent Contractor Test

Raise your hand if you remember the 1982 song “Twilight Zone”? Seeing several hands raised, I will continue. The tune is catchy, but the lyrics are hard to understand. I heard the song this weekend and decided to finally check the lyrics. “There’s a storm on the loose, zarmines in my head” couldn’t be right, could it?

Raise your hand if you knew the chorus was this:

Help I’m steppin’ into the twilight zone
The place is a madhouse,
Feels like being cloned
My beacon’s been moved under moon and star
Where am I to go, now that I’ve gone too far?

Seeing no hands raised, I will continue.

It’s all very confusing to me, but it made sense once I read through it more carefully.

I had the same reaction after seeing an amicus brief that the AFL-CIO recently filed with the NLRB. The brief was filed in a case that may — yet again — change the test for independent contractor status.

In Atlanta Opera, the Regional Director for Region 10 ruled that a proposed unit of makeup artists and hairstylists were employees, not independent contractors, and that an election could proceed.

The NLRB then issued a notice asking the parties and the public for briefs addressing whether the Board should reconsider the test for determining whether workers are independent contractors or employees. It seems inevitable that the Board will rewrite the test to make it harder for a worker to be deemed a contractor. But is Atlanta Opera the right case to use for rewriting the test?

The AFL-CIO, somewhat surprisingly, said no. Like the lyrics to “Twilight Zone,” that was confusing to me at first, but it makes sense when I read through it more carefully.

Undoubtedly the unions want a rewrite of the test to make it as hard as possible for someone to maintain contractor status. But the AFL-CIO urged the NLRB to wait, arguing this isn’t the right set of facts to make a sweeping change.

The AFL-CIO’s brief argued that, even under the existing test, it was pretty clear the makeup artists and stylists were employees. It would be more impactful to wait for a closer case to rewrite the test. Ah, so that’s their angle — wait til later then really shake things up.

Eventually, the NLRB is going to change the test. The current test, explained in SuperShuttle DFW (discussed here), examines ten Right to Control factors.

At a minimum, it seems clear that the Board would like to go back to the FedEx Home Delivery test. The FedEx test asked whether the worker was “in fact, rendering services as part of an independent business” and essentially adopted an Economic Realities Test, rather than the Right to Control Test that had always been applied.

When the Board revises the test, it could go back to FedEx or it could try to adopt a new, more stringent test, like an ABC Test. (The courts probably would not allow the Board to adopt an ABC Test without Congressional action, but that’s for another day.)

And the Board will revise the test. It’s just a question of when and to what. The Board will make it harder to be an independent contractor under federal labor law. That means it will become easier for unions to file election petitions and try to organize groups of workers that might now be operating as independent contractors.

Yeah there’s a storm on the loose, sirens in my head.

Oh. That makes more sense.

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

© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

2018_Web100Badge
 

That’ll Cost You 96 Camels: Court Headlocks Staffing Agency with $7.2M Misclassification Judgment

Mom feeding a non-wrestling camel, May 2010

If you weren’t in Turkey last month, you missed the annual Selçuk Efes Camel Wrestling Festival, which featured 162 competitors in four categories.

The camels are paired by weight and skill, and their techniques include tripping their opponents with foot tricks or applying headlocks then sitting on their opponents. Some just push until the other camel gives up. A winner is declared when one camel scares away the other, making him scream or collapse. The camels are muzzled so there is no biting.

Among those missing the spectacle were the owners of Steadfast Medical Staffing, a Virginia-based firm that maintains a database of nurses and pairs them with healthcare facilities. That’s because they were in federal court, defending against a lawsuit by the Department of Labor. The DOL alleged that they had misclassified the nurses as independent contractors in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

After a bench trial, the judge agreed with the DOL and ruled that the nurses — which included CNAs, LPNs and RNs — were employees of the staffing agency. The Court applied the Economic Realities Test, which is the proper test for determining who is an employee under the FLSA.

The Court considered all relevant factors, then applied camel-style headlocks while sitting on the defendant, causing the staffing agency to either scream or collapse (unclear from the opinion). The Court ruled that the staffing agency failed to pay overtime and failed to comply with FLSA record keeping requirements. The agency will be liable for approximately $3.6M in back wages plus another $3.6M in liquidated damages.

Following the judgment, the DOL issued a statement with quotes from the Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, and the Solicitor of Labor, Seema Nanda, that the DOL was sending an “unequivocal message” to Steadfast and other staffing companies that the DOL is serious about pursing independent contractor misclassification.

Staffing agencies that treat workers as independent contractors are on notice that the DOL is serious about enforcement. Remember, the facts of the relationship determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, not how the parties choose to characterize the relationship.

More than 1,100 nurses will share in the award, with a healthy-but-to-be-determined amount of fees headed to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

A prized wrestling camel can be sold for more than a million Turkish lira. That’s about $75,000. Large awards like this for systemic misclassification are not surprising. This one will cost the staffing firm about 96 wrestling camels.

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

© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

2018_Web100Badge
 

>

Low-Hanging Fruit? DOL and NLRB Join Forces to Fight Misclassification

Much has been written about the phrase low-hanging fruit. The metaphor’s origins are fairly obvious, referring to obtaining quick wins through minimal effort.

But how good is the metaphor? For harvesters, starting with the lowest hanging fruit is not the best strategy. Fruit near the top of a tree is generally riper and ready to eat, due to better sun exposure. Fruit can also be heavy, and harvesters who start at the top of the tree can work their way down as their bags grow heavier. Then there’s this insightful warning from one author’s mother, who cautioned that the blackberries near the bottom of the bush are the ones most likely to have been peed on by an animal.

Pee notwithstanding, the Department of Labor and the NLRB have seized on the low-hanging fruit strategy as a way to go after companies that misclassify independent contractors.

Last month the two agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to share information and better coordinate investigations when they suspect there have been violations of the law.

While the DOL and NLRB apply different tests to determine Who Is My Employee?, it’s likely that a relationship failing one test also fails the other. Violators of one law are the low-hanging fruit.

What does that mean for businesses? It means that if the NLRB believes your company misclassified its independent contractors, they’ll share that information with the DOL, which would be pleased to piggyback on the NLRB’s finding and tag you with wage and hour violations as well. And vice versa.

The information sharing arrangement raises the stakes for alleged violators. Companies found to be in violation of one law are more likely to be found in violation of multiple laws. And that means more fines, more assessments, and more disruption to your business.

For the DOL and NLRB, the information-sharing arrangement means they’ll go after each other’s targets and seek to double up on penalties. For companies whose independent contractors may resemble employees, it means you’re the blackberry that’s about to get peed on.

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

© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

2018_Web100Badge
 

New Year’s Resolutions: 5 Tips for Avoiding Trouble in 2022

Last spring in Poland, a menacing brown object appeared in a tree. Locals grew concerned about the mysterious beast and closed their windows. After a few days it was still there, and a call was placed to the local animal welfare society.

The authorities responded to the call and arrived on the scene to investigate. The citizens were relieved to learn it was not a bird of prey, a dangerous rabies-infested rodent, or a trapped pet. It was a croissant.

Somebody probably threw it into the tree while trying to feed birds.

The locals were likely embarrassed, but better safe than sorry. When in doubt, take steps to avoid problems. Be proactive.

Here are five tips to start off the new year the right way, with or without arboreal baked goods:

1. Review and revise your agreements with staffing agencies. Make sure you include The Monster with Three Eyes and these other clauses. Consider requiring all individual workers to sign arbitration agreements, and don’t forget the impact a choice of law clause may have.

3. Self-audit your use of independent contractors to determine whether these relationships are defensible. Here’s a tip for quickly identifying the riskiest relationships.

2. Review and revise your agreements with independent contractors. Add safe harbor clauses if you do business in WV or LA. Remember these rules, akin to discomfitting a bear.

4. Create a gatekeeper system so that managers and procurement team members cannot retain non-employee labor without first going through a designated individual. You can’t guard against the risks you don’t even know about.

5. Check your website for references to independent contractor relationships. Don’t refer to your contractors as “our whatevers” or “our team of whatevers.”

Remember, to those who say they haven’t been sued for misclassification, I say you haven’t been sued yet.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2022!

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

© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

2018_Web100Badge
 

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.

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

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

2018_Web100Badge
 

You Don’t Have to Be An Official Wizard to Write a Solid Independent Contractor Agreement

Farewell, my bearded friend.
Photo by Shellie, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Christchurch City Council has voted to discontinue paying its official wizard $16,000 a year to “provide acts of wizardry” for this New Zealand city. Ian Brackenbury Channell, known as The Wizard of New Zealand, lamented the decision, calling city council “a bunch of bureaucrats who have no imagination.”

As you can see from this sad state of affairs, acts of wizardry do not always get the appreciation they deserve. But fortunately it doesn’t take acts of wizardry to draft a solid independent contractor agreement.

A recent Illinois case shows the value of a solid agreement. In a decision earlier this month, a federal court ruled that a freight broker was not vicariously liable for catastrophic injuries caused in an accident involving a driver under contract to haul loads.

The driver had collided with a motorcycle, killing the motorcyclist. His widow sued the freight broker, alleging it was an employer and was therefore liable for the negligent driving of its employee. But the court reviewed the facts of the relationship and the terms of the contract, and it found that the driver was not an employee of the broker.

The broker did not provide equipment, select routes, or exhibit other elements of control. A Right to Control Test governed the analysis in this case. The broker did not retain the right to control the manner or means by which the work was performed. This lack of control was evident in both the facts of the relationship and the text of the contract.

When there’s a tragic loss, like here, it seems natural to point fingers at everybody, including the deepest pockets. But that doesn’t mean the deepest pockets are necessarily responsible for what went wrong. By drafting a careful and through independent contractor agreement, companies can avoid being held responsible for losses that are not their fault.

Although The Wizard of New Zealand undoubtedly has great powers of wizardry and although he is probably almost as much of a tourist attraction as the nearby penguins, he probably wouldn’t have the first clue how to draft a comprehensive independent contractor agreement.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take a wizard to draft a thorough agreement. But do make sure you do it right. Having a thorough agreement in place can make all the difference, especially in a catastrophic loss case when lots of parties — including those not really responsible — are going to be blamed.

You can read more about The Wizard here.

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

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

2018_Web100Badge
 

He-Gassen! This Telecom Company Should Have Smelled a Misclassification Claim Coming

Fire away! Source: Waseda U. Library

The Waseda University Library in Tokyo maintains an online archive of drawings dedicated to epic Japanese fart battles of the 17th and 18th centuries. The depictions, called he-gassen (really!), show farts so powerful they penetrate walls and blow cats out of trees.

This mode of attack must have been intimidating, but approaching enemies should have smelled what was coming and taken evasive action.

The same can be said for a Nevada telecommunications company, which had engaged 1,400 call center workers but treated them all as independent contractors. In the immortal words of Daryl Hall, no can do.

Under federal wage and hour law, the Economic Realities Test is used to determine whether a worker is an employees, regardless of what the parties call the relationship. In this case, the telecom company failed virtually every part of the test. The workers were economically reliant on the telecom company, which controlled their work in just about every relevant way, making the workers employees.

The facts were so bad that the Department of Labor took the laboring oar on this one, filing its own lawsuit in federal court. The DOL won a $1.4 million award, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

Remember, a worker’s status as an employee or independent contractor is determined using the legal test and the facts of the relationship, regardless of what the parties call themselves.

The moral of the story is that if it smells like an employment relationship, it probably is. Choose your battles wisely. He-gassen!

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

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

2018_Web100Badge