An author of romance novels died in 2020, committing suicide after online bullying. Or so it seemed. But a few days ago, Susan Meachen posted on Facebook to say she was back. Not in a risen-from-the-grave sort of way. She says she faked her own death and is very much alive. The story has been covered by CNN and BBC, and I don’t know whether anyone has yet figured out whether Meachen died or someone is now posting under her name.
One thing that seems more clearly dead, though, is the legal principle of agency deference in Ohio. This important decision arose out of a contractor dispute.
In a 7-0 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that under Ohio law, the judiciary is never [italics in original] required to defer to an administrative agency’s interpretation of the law, even if the statute is ambiguous. Only the judiciary has the authority to interpret the law for purposes of a judicial proceeding.
The Court held that an agency’s interpretation of the law is merely one view that a court may consider. The Court also stressed that an agency’s interpretation of common words is entirely irrelevant since courts are well equipped to interpret common words. Deference to an agency’s interpretation will depend on how persuasive a court finds the agency’s interpretation to be. A court might be more likely to defer if there is an ambiguity over a technical matter over which the agency has expertise, but even then, deference is never required.
I have attached an annotated copy of the opinion.
Here are some excerpts. These are quotes:
- The judicial branch is never required to defer to an agency’s interpretation of the law. As we explain, an agency interpretation is simply one consideration a court may sometimes take into account in rendering the court’s own independent judgment as to what the law is.
- First, it is never mandatory for a court to defer to the judgment of an administrative agency. Under our system of separation of powers, it is not appropriate for a court to turn over its interpretative authority to an administrative agency..
- Now assume that a court does find ambiguity and determines to consider an administrative interpretation along with other tools of interpretation. The weight, if any, the court assigns to the administrative interpretation should depend on the persuasive power of the agency’s interpretation and not on the mere fact that it is being offered by an administrative agency. A court may find agency input informative; or the court may find the agency position unconvincing. What a court may not do is outsource the interpretive project to a coordinate branch of government.
The case arose when an engineering firm applied for an engineering license in Ohio. Seems uneventful, except the firm listed an independent contractor as its full-time manager. Ohio law requires a firm to identify a responsible full-time manager to receive a license. The Ohio Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Surveyors denied the license on the grounds that a full-time manager could not be an independent contractor. The Board said that a manager had to be a W2 employee.
But the statute requires only that there be a full-time manager. It doesn’t say who can be a manager. The Board determined that an independent contractor could not be a “full-time manager” because independent contractors (if properly classified) are not controlled by their client. In other words, how could the firm be managed by someone it cannot control?
That’s a great question from a practical standpoint. If the contractor is properly classified, it might be a terrible idea to designate an independent contractor as your firm’s full-time manager. But that doesn’t mean it’s prohibited by the licensing statute.
The Ohio Supreme Court explained that the statute requires the Board (“shall”) to grant a license when a firm identifies a full-time manager and meets the other criteria. The Court ruled that the Board, as an administrative agency, has no right to impose additional requirements that are not in the statute, such as that the full-time manager cannot be an independent contractor.
The Court used this dispute to lay down a marker on an important issue of law — When must a court defer to an agency’s interpretation of the law? In Ohio, the answer is never.
This issue comes up often at the federal level too, and you’ll hear a lot more about this issue following the recent announcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that it plans to pass a regulation making non-compete agreements illegal. The FTC probably does not have the legal authority to do that. A law to prohibit non-competes would almost definitely have to come from the legislature, not an executive agency. If the FTC goes through with its plan, the issue is likely to end up in front of a federal court, which is likely to rule that the FTC does not have this authority. The US Supreme Court’s conservative majority has sent signals that it will be less inclined to defer to agencies than in the past, and it would not be surprising to see the US Supreme Court issue a ruling at some point that looks a lot like this Ohio decision.
The bottom line here is that the era of agencies making new law through regulation may be coming to an end. Agencies can interpret ambiguities in statutes, and they can provide more detail about legal requirements when authorized to do so. But they cannot impose new requirements when not specifically authorized to do so. The path taken by the Ohio Supreme Court may be a sign of similar things to come at the federal level.
In terms of typical independent contractor issues, this post is a bit off topic. But the issue is an important one, and it arose out of a contractor dispute, so I just decided to just go for it and write this post, whether it’s what you were expecting or not.
Kind of like Susan Meachen did recently when she posted on Facebook. Or didn’t post. We still don’t really know.
© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.