Watch Your Back, AB 5! Ninth Circuit Case Could Wipe Out California’s ABC Test

Yes, that’s a goat on my back.

This weekend we tried goat yoga. Highly recommended. It was a mix of basic yoga (my kind of yoga) to help get me stretched out, but held in a pen with goats who know no boundaries.

We then toured the farm, which featured llamas, long-haired pigs, guinea hens, a few obligatory dogs, and several varieties of goats, including the kind of fainting goats featured in that George Clooney movie.

Having to watch my back during yoga was something I signed up for and was part of the fun. Not so for California’s AB 5, which should be watching its back after what we saw at the Ninth Circuit last week.

The Ninth Circuit held oral argument in a case brought by Uber called Olson v State of California. Uber is arguing that AB 5 is unconstitutional.

While it’s hard to predict cases based on oral argument, the three judges on the panel seemed pretty sympathetic to Uber’s argument, which is that the statute arbitrarily picks winners and losers, i.e., the exemptions make no sense from an equal protection/due process standpoint.

Unlike the strict ABC Test in Massachusetts, the California ABC Test codified in AB 5 (and later AB 2257) contains loads of exceptions. The statute says to use the ABC Test to determine employee vs independent contractor status for all workers — except for dozens of categories of workers and various other situations.

Let’s not pretend. We all know this bill was written to target ride share and delivery app companies. The unfairness of making this law apply to everyone soon became apparent and led to the insertion of dozens of exceptions. If an exception applies, the Borello balancing test applies instead of the ABC Test.

The exceptions just about swallow the rule, and a law targeting a handful of companies presents constitutional problems. Or so the argument goes.

We can expect a decision in the next few months, and this is one to watch. Unlike me at goat yoga, imagining a decision that strikes down or severely limits AB 5 is not a big stretch.

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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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Watch Your Back, AB 5! Ninth Circuit Case Could Wipe Out California’s ABC Test

Yes, that’s a goat on my back.

This weekend we tried goat yoga. Highly recommended. It was a mix of basic yoga (my kind of yoga) to help get me stretched out, but held in a pen with goats who know no boundaries.

We then toured the farm, which featured llamas, long-haired pigs, guinea hens, a few obligatory dogs, and several varieties of goats, including the kind of fainting goats featured in that George Clooney movie.

Having to watch my back during yoga was something I signed up for and was part of the fun. Not so for California’s AB 5, which should be watching its back after what we saw at the Ninth Circuit last week.

The Ninth Circuit held oral argument in a case brought by Uber called Olson v State of California. Uber is arguing that AB 5 is unconstitutional.

While it’s hard to predict cases based on oral argument, the three judges on the panel seemed pretty sympathetic to Uber’s argument, which is that the statute arbitrarily picks winners and losers, i.e., the exemptions make no sense from an equal protection/due process standpoint.

Unlike the strict ABC Test in Massachusetts, the California ABC Test codified in AB 5 (and later AB 2257) contains loads of exceptions. The statute says to use the ABC Test to determine employee vs independent contractor status for all workers — except for dozens of categories of workers and other situations.

Let’s not pretend. We all know this bill was written to target ride share and delivery app companies. The unfairness of making this law apply to everyone soon became apparent and led to the insertion of dozens of exceptions. If an exception applies, the Borello balancing test applies instead of the ABC Test.

The exceptions just about swallow the rule, and a law targeting a handful of companies presents constitutional problems. Or so the argument goes.

We can expect a decision in the next few months, and this is one to watch. Unlike me at goat yoga, imagining a decision that strikes down or severely limits AB 5 is not a big stretch.

AB 5, watch your back.

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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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Hold Your Horses! A Court of Appeals May Have Granted Independent Contractors the Right to Strike and Organize

On June 4, 1923, jockey Frank Hayes rode 20-1 long shot Sweet Kiss to victory at Belmont Park. While that seems impressive, what made the win even more memorable is that at some point during the race, poor Frank died. He somehow stayed on the horse and ended up in the winner’s circle. Or six feet under it. It was his first (and last) win as a jockey.

Jockeys are in the news again, and we’ve got another surprise finish. But this one has implications far beyond the racetrack.

Click here for the rest of the story, originally posted yesterday on the BakerHostetler blog, Employment Law Spotlight.

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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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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.

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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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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.

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

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Famed Miami Nightspot Gets Hit with $15 Misclassification Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Statue or Statute? When Defending a Misclassification Claim, Don’t Forget a Limitations Defense

I took this photo in Paris. Creepy, isn’t it?

When a New Zealand man was caught snooping around with a torch at a building where he didn’t belong, someone called the authorities. When the local police arrived, the man was still there but still as a stone. He was pretending to be a statue.

The ruse failed, and the man was taken into custody.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that elaborate ruses don’t make good excuses.

The same can be said for a group of movers who claimed that a moving company had misclassified them as independent contractors and denied them a minimum wage and overtime. The federal court hearing the case, however, threw it out because the movers filed too late. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the statute of limitations on federal minimum wage and overtime claims is two years — or three years, if willful. These plaintiffs filed well after the deadline had passed.

The plaintiffs didn’t go away quietly, however. Knowing they had missed the deadline, they first tried some creative arguments as to why the court should toll — or extend — their deadline to file.

First, they argued that they the moving company had tricked them into thinking they weren’t employees and had no FLSA rights, since the moving company told them they were independent contractors. Sorry, the court ruled. If that were an excuse, there would be no statute of limitations in misclassification cases. The deadline to file would get tolled every time, and that’s not gonna happen.

Second, they argued that the moving company failed to provide the required posters that notify employees of their rights. Again, no dice. Independent contractors aren’t entitled to employee notices, so if the company thought the workers were contractors, there obviously wouldn’t be notices. This too would apply in every misclassification case and cannot be grounds for tolling the filing deadline.

Finally, they argued that they were immigrants and shouldn’t be held responsible for not knowing the rights under US law. The judge wasn’t buying that one either. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, especially when the plaintiffs were basing their lawsuit on the very law they claimed to be ignorant of.

This case dealt with statutes not statues, and despite spellcheck’s frequent failure to see the difference, there is a difference. Anyway, the excuses by the statue guy and the movers were similarly unimpressive. The movers’ case was dismissed for failure to file within the statute of limitations, and the court never even considered whether the workers were actually misclassified.

Companies facing misclassification claims need to remember to review statutes of limitation. A claim filed too late is destined to fail, so long as the company raises that defense.

And I still can’t believe the New Zealand guy thought he could go unnoticed by holding really really still. I’d love to see the body cam footage from when the officers moved in and caught him. Swatting away the pigeons on his head probably gave him away.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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New Joint Employment Decision: Poo Paint or Just Poo?

poo rainbow

Sitting outside this weekend I was thinking about things I wish I had when my kids were toddlers, things that would have helped to keep them occupied. The first things that came to mind were all electronic — iPhone, iPad, Netflix. But then I came upon this. And it’s good that I didn’t know about it a decade ago.

https://www.poopaint.net/home-1

From the website:

Inspiration found in a bathroom stall!
PooPaint allows kids to wipe using toilet paper that feels as if they were playing with a colouring book.
Making potty time into a positive and fun experience!

Yes, my friends, it’s a coloring book for poo, like color by numbers but with only one color — brown. Or maybe for some, a beautiful mahogany. Square 3 is an exact reproduction of Cleveland winters: fill in the whole page, leaving gray at the top for sky.

Anyway, the case I want to talk about today is a joint employment case from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. For potential joint employers, the decision is like potty time with poopaint — “a positive and fun experience!” For workers, it’s just poo.

In this case, a physical therapist assistant named Thomila worked in a nursing home. The operator of the nursing home contracted with a third party to provide staff.  The third party did the hiring, firing, controlled pay, provided benefits, supervised the workers, and scheduled them.

Thomila worked for the third party. At one point Thomila accused her supervisor, also a third party employee, of sexually harassing her. The third party investigated and fired him. So far, so good.

But then the nursing home operator — which apparently liked the supervisor — decided that Thomila was no longer a “good fit” for the nursing home and asked the third party to remove her. It did.

Thomila sued the nursing home operator, claiming that its request to remove her (after she complained of sexual harassment) was retaliation in violation of Title VII. Although she was employed by the third party, she claimed that the nursing home operator was a joint employer and therefore could be liable under Title VII’s anti-retaliation rule.

But the case was thrown out on a motion for summary judgment. The court ruled that the nursing home operator was not a joint employer under the test used for determining joint employment under Title VII.

The test for joint employment under Title VII is whether the alleged joint employer has the ability to:

  • Hire and fire,
  • Discipline,
  • Affect compensation and benefits, and
  • Direct and supervise performance.

(At least, that’s the test in the Sixth Circuit, which includes OH, MI, TN, and KY. You’d think the test would be the same everywhere since this is a federal law, but it sometimes varies a bit.)

Anyway, back to Thomila. The third party controlled all of these things, so the nursing home operator was not a joint employer. Since it was not a joint employer, it has no duty to Thomila under Title VII. The anti-retaliation provisions in Title VII did not apply. Case dismissed.

Thomila tried one other claim too, and this may have been her stronger argument. She alleged that by firing her, the nursing hone operator interfered with her access to employment opportunities. That’s a separate kind of claim. But the court ruled that the nursing home operator was not liable under that claim either, since the third party had offered Thomila other placement opportunities (but all were out of state). On this claim, the decision was 2-1, with the dissenting judge arguing that the interference claim should have been allowed to go forward. The interference claim does not require a finding of joint employment.

The lesson here for employers is that the test for joint employment is technical. The facts matter a lot. The risk of joint employment can be minimized if the relationship is carefully structured so that the third party retains control over the factors listed above. The contract should be drafted carefully, detailing who is responsible for what.

A poorly drafted contract is not worth the paper it’s written on. Kind of like that specific kind of paper advertised here as “Inspiration found in a bathroom stall!” And that should not be the kind of paper you’re looking for when drafting your contracts.

So draft wisely and, for “a fun and positive experience!“, choose your paper carefully.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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NSFW? Not Quite. But 18 States Say DOL’s New Joint Employment Rule Is Inappropriate.

Zippy Michigan

Zippy sunbathes in the nude.

Some things sound inappropriate, but they’re not. For example, I sometimes post naked pictures on my blog. But only of my dog. She’s immodest and doesn’t seem to mind. (Her fur coat doesn’t count.) So, you see, that’s not inappropriate.

What about the DOL’s new joint employment test, which went into effect in March? Was that inappropriate? Eighteen Democratic state attorneys general seem to think so, and they’ve filed a federal lawsuit to try to undo the rule. For those of you keeping score at home, they claim the new rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act and is not consistent with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Last week, a federal judge in New York rejected the DOL’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, meaning the case moves forward. The DOL argued that the states lacked standing to challenge the new rule. Lack of standing means they can’t sue because they’re not harmed by the new rule.

But the judge found that the states “plausibly alleged” that they have standing to sue. He noted that the new rule could reduce the total amount of wages paid to employees in their states, which could lead to a reduction in tax revenues. The loss of tax revenues and the anticipated increased expense in enforcing state wage and hour laws would be enough. The states can proceed.

The ruling does not address whether the lawsuit has any merit, just that it may proceed.

While no one would claim the new rule is NSFW, these states argue that the content of the new rule and the way it was passed was inappropriate. But like the naked photo above, you need to see the full picture before drawing any conclusions about what’s proper and what’s not. 

For now, the DOL’s new rule remains in effect.  That means it’s more difficult to establish joint employment than it was before. It’s also difficult, by the way, to get a dog to wear a hat. But we did it. And Zippy looks ready for college football season. 

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Bring Forth the Tiger-Dogs! Here’s a Quick Status Check on the Challenges to California’s New Independent Contractor Law

Tiger independent contractor dynamex california

Not an actual tiger. Or a dog.

When outside forces pose a threat to people’s livelihood, people will go to great lengths to fight back.

For example, when monkeys began ravaging the crops of a farmer in Karnataka, India, the imaginitive farmer painted his dog to look like a tiger, to scare away the pesky invaders. [Photo here.]

Business owners in California are taking more conventional measures to fight back againt the tyranny of Assembly Bill 5, the new California law that seeks to reclassify many of the state’s independent contractors as employee. Here’s a quick summary of the resistance:

  • Owner-operator truckers claim the new California law cannot be applied to them because of a federal law (FAAAA) that prohibits states from enacting their own laws that affect the “price, route, or service of any motor carrier with respect to the transportation of property.” They won a preliminary injunction last month, temporarily preventing the law from applying to them.
  • Freelance writers and photographers are challenging the law too. The law has an exception for freelancers, but the exemption goes away if freelancers submit 35 or more pieces to a single publication. In other words, they’re independent contractors for submissions #1 through #34, but they instantly become employees with submission #35. They argue that the exemption is arbitrary and violates their First Amendment and equal protection Rights.
  • Rideshare and food delivery apps filed their own lawsuit, alleging that the exemptions are arbitrary and violate their equal protection and due process rights.
  • Five gig economy app companies have contributed $110 million to a ballot measure that will be voted upon in the November 2020 election if the measure collects 625,000 signatures. The law would exempt app-based gig economy drivers from the new test if the companies provide workers with specific levels of pay, benefits, and rights, which are defined in the proposal.
  • Republican lawmakers have proposed a constitutional amendment (A.C.A. 19) called the “Right to Earn a Living Act,” which would overturn Assembly Bill 5 and enshrine in California law “the right to pursue a chosen business or profession free from arbitrary or excessive government interference.” The amendment would reinstate California’s S.G. Borello balancing test for determining whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee.

Meanwhile, the California Supreme Court is considering whether the 2018 Dynamex decision, which first imposed the ABC Test for wage and hour claims, applies retroactively. If it does, then businesses can be liable for failing to comply with a test that did not yet exist. Really.

That’s a lot of action, and we’ll continue to watch for new developments. Meanwhile, California businesses that use independent contractors should tread carefully, follow the status of legal challenges, and paint their dogs to look like tigers — just in case that turns out to be effective.

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© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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