Hairy Situation: Misclassification Settlement Disputes Settle for $6.5 Million; Multiple Tests Would Have Applied

If you have a beard at least 8 inches long, here’s an opportunity you might not have considered. At a bar in Casper, Wyoming, a group of bewhiskered patrons tied their beards together to take the world’s record for Longest Beard Chain.

How long? 150 feet, shattering the previous record of 62 feet, set by a shaggy German crew in 2007.

But that wasn’t even the hairiest highlight of the weekend. Down the street was the National Beard and Moustache Championships, a visual delight featuring moustache categories such as best handlebar, Dali, freestyle, and uber-stache, and partial beard categories including best friendly sideburns, goatee freestyle, musketeer, and Fu Manchu.

Meanwhile, 1,000 miles to the west, a different sort of hairy situation was nearing conclusion for several operators of gentleman’s clubs or nightclubs or strip joints, depending on your preferred terminology.

Last week, a federal district court in San Francisco approved a settlement that combined multiple class action claims of independent contractor misclassification brought by exotic dancers. The settlement covered more than 8,000 dancers and included a total payout of $6.5 million.

The cases were complicated by a number of legal issues, including the fact that — because of the timing of the lawsuit — the question of whether the dancers were contractors or employees was to be determined using different tests for different claims. The dancers’ classification for their California wage order claims would be determined using an ABC Test, but their classification under other Labor Code claims would be determined using the Borello balancing test, which is a California hybrid of Right to Control and Economic Realities Tests.

The class period covered 2010 through 2018, so the Dynamex decision applied to the wage claims, but AB5 had not yet been enacted, which left the Borello test to govern the Labor Code claims. This post explains the complicated situation that existed at the time. Had the class covered the period from January 2020 forward, the ABC Test likely would have been used to determine classification under all of the California claims.

But there were also Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) claims. The FLSA uses an Economic Realities Test to determine a worker’s classification, but that test is fluid too. The Economic Realities Test used by most courts is different from the test that was written into the current FLSA regulations in 2020, which is different from the test the DOL recently proposed to enact in a new set of regulations currently under consideration.

So for these class members, there were at least three different tests that would determine whether they were employees or independent contractors under different laws. That’s kind of like trying to determine who had the best musketeer or Fu Manchu but with everyone’s facial hair tied together in a 150-foot beard chain.

There are a few takeaways here for the rest of us.

First, misclassification claims by exotic dancers remain common. The business model needs some internal review. But that’s probably not your concern.

Second, the settlement is a good reminder of how complicated it can be to determine a worker’s classification when multiple laws apply. Different tests apply to different laws, even within the same state. The dancers, had they gone to trial, might have been employees under some laws and contractors under other laws.

Third, there are significant costs in reclassifying contractors to employees. The settlement required the clubs to reclassify their dancers to employees, which means the dancers would become eligible for unemployment, workers’ comp coverage, and protection under the anti-discrimination and leave laws that apply to employees.

Regardless of your business, it’s always a good idea to proactively review independent contractor relationships to see how well they would withstand a classification challenge in court. Misclassification cases are high stakes and can take many twists and turns. Sort of like the facial hair in the Full Beard Freestyle category. (Photos here.)

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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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Don’t Be Like These Sheep: Check Your Contract Recitals to Avoid This Misclassification Mistake

In Inner Mongolia, these sheep have been walking in a circle for about two weeks, with a few sheep occasionally standing in the middle. Here’s video.

Various theories have been circulating to try to explain the odd behavior, including that it may be some sort of bacteria-induced delirium.

But I think I know the real reason. (And a hearty Mazel Tov! to the wooly couple!)

When drafting independent contractor agreements, it’s never a good idea to be unsure of why you’re doing something. Too often, businesses use generic agreements and don’t understand the impact or purpose of what they’ve written.

One common place I see mistakes is in the very beginning of contracts – the contractual recitals.

Recitals are often used to provide context for the reader. Recitals are also used for six-year old piano players to play chopsticks for grandma, but that’s for another day. For example, an off-the-shelf independent contractor agreement might start with something like this: We’re in the business of doing X, and we are retaining Contractor to do this part of X. Therefore, the parties agree to the following terms.

The problem with that innocent sounding recital is that it may be evidence the contractor is misclassified.

Under a Strict ABC Test, if the work being performed by the contractor is within the hiring party’s usual course of business, the contractor is automatically considered an employee. That fact fails prong B of a strict ABC Test.

Under an Economic Realities Test or a Right to Control Test, one of the factors often considered is often whether the work being performed is “an integral part” of the business, or some variation on that theme. Unlike ABC Tests, these tests are balancing tests and so one factor will not necessarily determine a worker’s classification, but there’s no reason to give the factor away, especially in a contract recital.

In a misclassification challenge, every fact and contract term will be subject to scrutiny.

If you’re unsure whether the term is needed, then question whether to include it. Recitals generally aren’t needed at all, and I often omit them from my independent contractor agreements. Don’t include off-the-shelf terms if you don’t understand their effect.

Unexplainable behavior makes for good blog posts and tweets, but not good contracts.

Which is why I never ask unfamiliar sheep to help me draft contracts.

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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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Settling Misclassification Lawsuits Is Sometimes the Right Call, But It Might Make You Feel Dirty

Say cheese!

The world’s dirtiest man died last month at the (ripe) age of 94, having reportedly going 60 years without bathing. Covered in soot and living in a cinder-block shack, the Iranian hermit was known for eating roadkill, smoking a pipe filled with animal excrement, and believing that cleanliness would make him ill.

The newest dirtiest man alive may be this guy in India, who as of 2009 hadn’t bathed in a mere 35 years. Instead of water, this man of the people opts for a “fire bath,” in which he lights a bonfire, smokes marijuna and stands on a leg praying to Lord Shiva. The man told a reporter from the Hindustan Times, “Fire bath helps kill all the germs and infections in the body.” Of course it does.

Sometimes when we settle lawsuits, we also feel dirty. Maybe not that dirty, but at least icky. It feels wrong to pay money to a plaintiff when we feel the other party doesn’t deserve it. But settlements are often driven by factors other than the merits of a claim, such as business conditions or considerations other than purely financial.

In independent contractor misclassification cases, a settlement is sometimes the only way to ensure that a lawsuit does not result in forced reclassification of workers. In a settlement, the parties can agree upon terms, including financial payments, without conceding that anyone was misclassified and without requiring a reclassification going forward.

That is what happened in a recent case involving A Place for Rover, which is an app-based gig economy company that connects dog walkers with dog owners.

In May 2021, the app company won summary judgment in a misclassification dispute. The company argued that dog walkers were independent contractors, not employees, even under California law. The company argued that it could satisfy each prong of the ABC Test and that, regardless, it was a referral service under California law, which would exempt it from the ABC Test usually used in California to determine whether a worker is an employee. The company urged the court instead to analyze the classification dispute using the S.G. Borello balancing test, not an ABC Test.

The district court did not reach a conclusion on whether the company was a referral service and instead determined that the ABC Test was satisfied. The court ruled that dog walkers controlled their own work, routes, and prices, making them legitimate independent contractors.

But the plaintiff appealed, and the company may have feared that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals would revive the case and send it to trial. Instead of taking a chance on a bad outcome, the company settled.

By settling, the company pays money to avoid the risk of a judgment that the dog walkers were employees, an outcome that would likely render the company’s business model no longer viable. The company’s decision makers probably felt a little dirty, paying any money at all after having won at the district court level. That is not a surprising outcome, even if they felt strongly about their case. Because the stakes are so high in misclassification litigation, that’s often how these cases conclude. Icky but sometimes necessary.

But at least in litigation, afterwards you can take a bath.

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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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Silly Old Moo: Watch What You Say When Trying to Preserve Independent Contractor Status

The parliament of New Zealand maintains a list of words and phrases that are considered unbecoming to say about another member and are therefore banned from use during parliamentary debates. These include:

  • His brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides.
  • Energy of a tired snail returning home from a funeral.
  • Could go down the Mount Eden sewer and come up cleaner than he went in.
  • Silly old moo.

Words matter when trying to preserve a worker’s independent contractor classification too. Avoid possessives when referring to independent contractors, who are not “your” anything. The terminology you use should be consistent with the concept that the contractors are in business for themselves.

Check your company’s website and public facing materials and try to avoid phrases like this:

  • Our technicians [or representatives or whatever]
  • Our team of [whatevers]
  • We install/repair/other verb

Other words and phrases can also suggest employment and should be avoided when referring to contractors:

  • Hire (instead, retain)
  • Wages (instead, compensation)
  • Assignment (instead, project or engagement)
  • Duties (instead, services)

Using terminology that does not sound like employment will help when trying to show a court of agency that the relationship is not employment.

And never, ever tell anyone that your independent contractor’s brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides. That’s just unbecoming.

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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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But the Onions! DOL’s Contractor Rule May Cause Companies Heartburn

Have you ever gone to a new restaurant that took over the space where one of your favorite restaurants used to be?
 
You’ve been wanting to try the new restaurant. You get there and the menu looks similar, so you order the fettucine with shrimp because that dish was always really good at the old place. It arrives and it looks the same but you’re not sure that it tastes quite the same.
 
Maybe the sauce tastes a little different but it’s hard to tell for sure. Then, you get home later that night and you feel a little queasy. You realize that the new restaurant must have put onions in the sauce. You probably didn’t notice because when the dish was served it looked just like it did at the old restaurant.
 
But you’re not supposed to eat onions, and now you have to wait and see if you’re going to start cramping up from eating the onions or if you’re going to be just fine. You really just don’t know. It could just as easily go either way, and now all you can do is wait.
 
That’s kind of how I feel after reading the Department of Labor’s proposed new independent contractor rule, released earlier this week.

Click here to read the rest of the story, originally published in Law360 on 10/13/2022.

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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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No Bear Wrestling? Poorly Drafted D.C. Law Turns Contractors Into Employees, Sort Of

According to this article in USA Today, state and local legislatures pass all kinds of strange laws. In Tennessee, you can’t hold office if you’ve been in a duel. In North Carolina, you can’t hold a meeting if you are dressed in costume. In Louisiana, it’s illegal to wrestle a bear.

Other times, legislatures pass laws that make sense, but they do it in a way that’s sloppy or lazy. A recent amendment passed by the D.C. Council falls into this second category.

Like many state and local anti-discrimination laws, the D.C. Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination and harassment in the workplace. An amendment to the Act, effective 10/1/2022, expanded the law’s protections to most independent contractors. Seems reasonable, right?

But the way the law extends these protections is lazy drafting, and the lazy drafting creates problems for those of us who are careful about preserving the distinctions between employees and independent contractors.

The amendment expands the Act’s coverage by changing the definition of “employee.” Under the amended text, the term “employee” now also includes individuals “working or seeking work as an independent contractor,” as well as unpaid interns. The amendment then excludes some independent contractors from coverage, explaining that an independent contractor for purposes of the Act “does not mean a service vendor who provides a discrete service to an individual customer.”

There are two problems here. First, starting at the end, what does the exception really mean? I presume the exception exists to carve out rideshare and delivery services, but if that’s what they meant, they should have said that. It’s unclear. Maybe some guidance will be issued later.

But the larger problem is the second one, and that’s what I want to focus on here. Instead of amending the law so that it applies to “employees and covered independent contractors,” the law lazily changes the definition of “employee” to say that “the term ‘employee’ includes … an individual working or seeking work as an ‘independent contractor.’”

But the word employee (as everyone commonly understands it) doesn’t include individuals working or seeking work as independent contractors. That’s the whole point of differentiating them by calling them independent contractors.

Let’s try an analogy. If you wanted to expand coverage for a law that applies to police officers so that the same protections applied to fire fighters, you wouldn’t redefine the term “police officers” to “include” fire fighters. You’d say the law applies to police officers and fire fighters.

The same principle applies in every day life. If you went to the ice cream store and ordered vanilla soft serve, you’d be unhappy if the clerk handed you a vanilla-chocolate twist. You’d complain, but the clerk would point you to the sign on the wall that says “We define vanilla to include chocolate.” That’s dumb and would never happen. I think. But I would check twice before ordering soft serve at the D.C. Council cafeteria.

Preserving independent contractor status is already complicated, with so many different state and local tests for determining who is an employee and who is a contractor. We don’t need lazy amendments that define the term “employee” in a way that just includes “independent contractors.” It makes everything more confusing for everyone, especially when it remains important to differentiate between contractors and employees in every other context.

We don’t even need to look beyond D.C. to see how the D.C. Council has messed this up. Let’s compare the amended Human Rights Act to other D.C. laws.

The D.C. unemployment compensation law uses a common law test to determine whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor. So does D.C. wage and hour law. The D.C. workers comp law uses a different “relative nature of work test,” but that’s a balancing test too. The point is, under these other D.C. laws, the term “employee” definitely does not include independent contractors, and there’s a way of differentiating which is which.

It’s laudable that the D.C. Council wants to extend anti-discrimination protections to independent contractors. Some state laws do that too. (Federal anti-discrimination laws do not.) But don’t lazily do it by calling independent contractors “employees.” Because they’re not.

At least in D.C. it’s still legal to wrestle a bear.

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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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Seattle Trades Nirvana & Ken Griffey for Burdensome New Independent Contractor Law

troll
The Fremont Troll, photo by Sue (CC BY 2.0) modified

Back in the 1990s, Seattle was known for Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Ken Griffey Jr., Microsoft, Frasier (which I could never get into), the emergence of Amazon, and a lot fewer homeless people. The fewer homeless people may have been in part to the Fremont Troll, an 18-foot sculpture erected in 1990 under the Aurora Bridge, where it holds a crushed VW Beetle and would be scary as hell to sleep next to.

The troll’s still there, but Griffey and Frasier are gone and we all know what happened to Nirvana.

Having left the 90s behind, Seattle in 2022 apparently wants to be known instead as a city where it is pretty burdensome to retain independent contractors.

The Seattle City Council passed a law that requires immediate action from all companies that have solo independent contractors working in the city. The Independent Contractor Protections Ordinance, codified at SMC 14.34, took effect Sept. 1.

The rest of this article was originally published as a BakerHostetler Alert, here. Immediate action is needed for companies with solo contractors in Seattle, so read on. All the same helpful info is just below.

The law applies to solo independent contractors who perform any part of their work in Seattle for a commercial hiring entity if the contractor receives or is expected to receive at least $600 in total compensation from the hiring entity during a calendar year. If the hiring party knows or has reason to know that the work is being performed in Seattle, then the law applies, even if the hiring party has no preference as to where the work is performed.

Independent contractors are defined to include individuals and entities consisting of only one person. The law does not apply to workers being treated as employees by a staffing agency or consulting firm.

Commercial hiring entities are defined to include for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Modified rules apply to drivers for transportation network companies, such as ride-share services. There are also exceptions for lawyers and for contractors whose sole relationship to the hiring party is a property rental agreement.

Commercial hiring entities with independent contractors covered under the new law must:

  • Provide a written precontract disclosure to the contractor that includes at least 12 specified categories of information about the engagement. This disclosure must be in a single document in the contractor’s primary language. A model notice is available.
  • Provide written updates before making changes to any of the required information.
  • Provide timely payment consistent with the precontract disclosure terms or a later written contract. If no deadline for payment is specified, then the contractor must be paid no later than 30 days after the work is completed.
  • Provide an itemized, written payment disclosure accompanying each payment. The disclosure must be in a single document, such as a pay stub or invoice, and it must contain information in at least 12 specified categories.
  • Provide a written notice of the contractor’s rights under the new law. The notice must be in English and, if applicable, the contractor’s primary language. A model notice is available.
  • Maintain for three years records that demonstrate compliance with these requirements.
  • Refrain from retaliating against any contractor who asserts rights protected under the new law. Prohibited retaliation includes threatening to report that the contractor is an illegal immigrant. If any adverse action is taken within 90 days of a contractor’s exercise of rights, the law creates a rebuttable presumption that the action was retaliatory.

The precontract disclosure and disclosure of rights must be provided before work begins or, for contractors already providing services, by Sept. 30, 2022.

Penalties for violating this law may include payment of unpaid compensation, liquidated damages, civil penalties, other penalties payable to an aggrieved contractor, fines and interest. These penalties are in addition to any other relief available under any other law.

BakerHostetler’s Contingent Workforce team continues to monitor state and local developments affecting companies that retain independent contractors. Please reach out to your BakerHostetler contact or any member of the Contingent Workforce team for compliance assistance.

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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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Don’t Get Armboxed: Strict ABC Test Results in $100 Million Misclassification Liability

In Russia, a new variant on boxing involves chaining the two combatants to opposite sides of a podium, with one arm of each boxer immobilized. They then pound each other with the remaining good arm and, because they’re tied to the podium, they have nowhere to go.

The contests, called armboxing, last for three one minute rounds. If the fighters last two rounds, their arms are both freed up for round three, but the boxers remain chained to the podium.

Getting pummeled with nowhere to go is also a fair way to describe Uber’s most recent run-in with the New Jersey Department of Labor over unpaid unemployment contributions. The NJDOL claims that under the Strict ABC Test governing New Jersey unemployment law, rideshare drivers are employees, not independent contractors.

The NJDOL pursued Uber and a subsidiary for failing to pay into the state’s unemployment fund over a five-year period, 2014-2018.

Last week, the NJDOL announced a settlement with Uber to cover the unpaid assessments – for a cool $100 million. The amount was based on $78 million in unpaid contributions plus $22 million in interest. Uber has made the payment but did not concede there was any misclassification.

New Jersey uses a strict ABC Test to determine employee status for unemployment coverage, but uses a different version of the ABC Test for wage and hour law. The strict ABC Test used for unemployment law follows the same formula as the tests in Massachusetts and California. The danger in these tests, of course, lies in prong B, which requires that to be an independent contractor, the work being performed must be “outside the usual course” of the hiring party’s business.

State departments of labor are notoriously aggressive in pursuing misclassification, and courts often defer to their judgment, even if the facts could support independent contractor status. The NJDOL is among the most aggressive enforcers, as you might expect when its Labor Commissioner says this: “Let’s be clear: there is no reason temporary, or on-demand workers who work flexible hours, or even minutes at a time can’t be treated like other employees in New Jersey or any other state.”

For businesses using independent contractors, tools such as arbitration agreements with class action waivers can be effective in preventing class action litigation. But arbitration agreements can’t stop a state agency from conducting an audit and imposing its own penalties for noncompliance.

And that’s how Uber found itself tied to a podium with one arm immobilized as it got hit.

Businesses in states using strict ABC Tests need to be particularly careful when setting up their business plans, their contracts, and their external messaging. State audits can be random, or they can be initiated after a worker complaint.

Unemployment filings by independent contractors can be especially dangerous. State departments of labor will typically investigate those claims, assess whether the worker is misclassified and — most troubling of all — will find that if the one worker was misclassified, then all similarly situated workers were also misclassified. The state DOL may then issue back assessments based on its assumptions about how many workers are similarly situated and how many were therefore misclassified.

When an independent contractor files an unemployment claim, pay attention and be prepared to defend your classification decision. Merely denying that the worker was an employee may not be enough, and a full-fledged audit could follow. In a full-fledged audit, the stakes can be high, and it might not feel like a fair fight.

Be proactive, plan ahead, and don’t chain your business to a podium.

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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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Are Independent Contractors Entitled to Military Leave? Eggcellent question!

Worker protection laws are a bit different in China.

According to this report, a Chinese company forces its employees to eat raw eggs as punishment if their work does not meet expectations. When one intern complained, the HR Manager allegedly responded, “What law is preventing you from eating a raw egg?”

Even if the company’s motivational techniques could be challenged under Chinese labor law, Chinese legal experts caution that the intern is probably not the right person to complain. His unpaid internship apparently doesn’t make him an employee under Chinese law. And there it is: The age old question of Who Is My Employee? is a thing in China too.

Back in the U.S., we know that the employee vs. independent contractor question makes all the difference in whether several types of employment, tax, and benefits laws apply. But what about military leave law?

Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), employees are guaranteed reinstatement and other job protection rights after taking military leave. And employers must grant military leave when requested.

Do the same protections apply to independent contractors?

According to federal regulations, the answer is no — so long as the contractor is properly classified as a contractor.

Under USERRA, independent contractor status is evaluated using a Right to Control Test. The regulations say these six factors should be considered:

1.       The extent of the employer’s right to control the manner in which the individual’s work is to be performed;

2.       The opportunity for profit or loss that depends upon the individual’s managerial skill;

3.       Any investment in equipment or materials required for the individual’s tasks, or his or her employment of helpers;

4.       Whether the service the individual performs requires a special skill;

5.       The permanence of the individual’s working relationship; and,

6.       Whether the service the individual performs is an integral part of the employer’s business.

No single factor is controlling, but all are relevant for determining whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor.

As with so many other laws, it’s not enough just to assume USERRA doesn’t apply because a worker is classified as an independent contractor. The workers has to be properly classified as an independent contractor, according to the test that applies to that particular law.

Getting it wrong means failure to comply with military leave law. That sounds unpatriotic and unfair. And it could leave you with egg on your face.

[Note to self for future blog post idea: Can you require independent contractors to eat raw eggs in the U.S.?]

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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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How to Support Prong C of the ABC Test, and Why You Can’t Lie Down When Faced with an Audit

Zippy practices for the 13th Annual Lying Down Championships

Lying down in the face of a challenge is rarely a good strategy. I did, however, find one exception.

A man from Montenegro recently won the 12th Annual Lying Down Championships, beating out nine other competitors by remaining horizontal under a tree for 60 hours. As a reward for his (lack of) effort, he received 350 euros, lunch for two at a restaurant, a weekend stay at a local village, and a rafting trip.

Then things got weird. Local media reported that shortly after the competition, the winner was taken into police custody for (allegedly) physically attacking journalists and damaging the headquarters of a newspaper that called him “the biggest swindler in all of Montenegro.”

I suppose there’s a lesson in here somewhere: Offer a man an award and he’ll lie still for 60 hours, but call him a swindler and he won’t take that lying down.

But I digress. In this post, I want to share some tips gleaned from a recent New Jersey Supreme Court case involving prong C of the ABC Test. The case also serves as a reminder never to take a misclassification audit lying down.

The dispute involved East Bay, a drywall installation company that used independent contractor drywall installers for residential jobs. Until 2013, the company treated its installers as employees. It then switched to an independent contractor model. Risky move. This sparked an audit.

The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development wanted to know why this company, which was still active, suddenly lacked employees. The audit looked at the individuals who continued to install drywall and examined whether, under New Jersey’s ABC Test, they were independent contractors or employees.

You can guess what happened next. The Department found that 16 installers were misclassified, and it issued a hefty back assessment against the company for failing to pay into the state unemployment fund. The company appealed and lost.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion focused largely on what it takes to prove prong C of the ABC Test — that the individual “is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business.” (You can read more about New Jersey’s ABC Test here, but otherwise I am going to assume that readers are familiar with the basic concept of the ABC Test.)

The drywall company put forth evidence that the independent contractors had registered business entities and certificates of insurance. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that wasn’t enough to satisfy prong C. This evidence wasn’t enough to prove that the individuals truly operated independently. Evidence in support of prong C should demonstrate that the independent contractor would not become unemployed if the work from this company went away.

The Court gave some examples of evidence that would have been more persuasive in satisfying prong C, including:

  • That the IC’s business will continue when this engagement ends;
  • That the IC’s business is stable and lasting, or other evidence of longevity;
  • That the IC has other customers;
  • That the IC has other sources of revenue, and the company being audited is not the primary source of income for the IC;
  • That the IC provides the tools, equipment, vehicles, and other resources needed to perform the work;
  • That the IC has telephone listings or business stationery;
  • That the IC advertises;
  • That the IC has its own employees;
  • That the IC maintains inventory;
  • That the IC bears the risk of loss;
  • That the IC benefits from the goodwill generated from a job well done;
  • That the IC is required to maintain educational and licensure requirements;
  • That the IC is permitted to obtain work from other businesses; and
  • That the IC in fact performs work for other businesses.

The court cited these as examples of the types of evidence that would have been helpful to prove prong C. This is not a mandatory list. The point here was just that business registrations and certificates of insurance were not enough. Strategically, there is other evidence that would be helpful too, and there are steps that can be taken when retaining ICs to help build a defense. I maintain a longer list but, hey, I can’t give away all the secrets here.

Other observations from the New Jersey Supreme Court decision:

1. How to invite an audit. Switching from an employee model to an independent contractor model is, by itself, enough to prompt an audit.

2. An ominous footnote about prong B. There was also a dispute in this case over the meaning of prong B. Remember, New Jersey has a standard ABC Test, which allows prong B to be satisfied by showing either the work is outside the hiring party’s usual course of business or the work is performed outside of the places of business of the hiring party. (This is different than the California version of the ABC Test.) All drywall installation work was performed at customers’ residences. After the audit, the Commissioner of Labor found (inexplicably) that prong B was not satisfied. It is unclear from the opinion whether that was based on a conclusion that the customers’ residences were East Bay’s places of business or was based on some other fact, such as some kind of work being done at East Bay’s place of business. If the Commissioner believed customer’s residences to be East Bay’s places of business, then it is hard to see how the latter part of prong B could ever be satisfied. But the NJ Supreme Court did not consider prong B in its decision. The Court ruled that prong C was not satisfied, and so it chose not to wade into the morass of prong B.

But there is an ominous footnote. When the Court declined to consider prong B, it noted that in its prior decisions, the place of business meant locations where the hiring party had a “physical plant or conducts an integral part of its business.” That’s consistent with common sense and would exclude a customer’s residence. The Court then, however, invited the Department of Labor to issue regulations explaining how the Department thinks prong B should be interpreted. Yikes!

3. You need to fight unemployment claims by ICs at the initial audit level; you can’t expect a court to save you on appeal. Courts will defer to the findings of an agency if its factual findings have any support in the record, no matter how flimsy. In other words, the agency can be wrong in its overall weighing of the factors, but a court is supposed to affirm the agency’s decision if there’s evidence to support it. Not “a preponderance of evidence” or “ample evidence” or even “sufficient evidence.” Just “evidence.” Folks, the reason we have trials is because there’s almost always at least some evidence on both sides, even if the preponderance of the evidence leans the other way. You shouldn’t have to pitch a shutout to win the game.

I have seen the same deference standard applied to unemployment decisions in New York and Ohio. The courts defer to the agencies. It is unfair. The result can be that the agency’s decision gets affirmed, even if it made the objectively wrong decision.

This unfair standard highlights how important it is to win at the earliest stages in an unemployment claim, if independent contractor status is being challenged. The initial investigation is your best chance to defend independent contractor status. If you wait, it’s too late. Provide the auditor your best evidence on every factor, and don’t hold back.

Remember the consequences too. If one contractor is misclassified, the agency will likely deem all other similarly situated contractors to be misclassified, and you’ll be on the hook for unpaid assessments for all of them. The stakes are high. Companies using independent contractors should spend the time and money to mount a full defense of their contractor’s status at the audit stage. It’s worth the investment, especially because the state courts will generally defer to the agency’s findings, even if the agency is wrong.

Here’s the ultimate takeaway: If you’ve entered a Lying Down Competition, it’s ok to lie down for as long as you want. But if you’re faced with a worker classification audit, or a 1099 audit, or an unemployment claim by a former independent contractor, do not take that lying down.

You need to fight hard in the audit, producing evidence to support independent contractor status. You’ll have the right to appeal if you lose, but don’t expect a fair chance to prove your case. You’ve got to do your best to win any classification dispute at the initial audit. That’s the time to retain counsel and invest time and resources. If you lose the audit and bring an appeal, you’re fighting a steep uphill climb.

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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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