A Grub’s Life: Joint Employer Test or Single Employer Test. What’s the Difference?

This product kills and prevents grubs. That’s good if you have a garden, bad if you’re a grub. But in either case, there’s quite a difference between preventing grubs — that is, keeping them away but allowing them to live a happy grublike existence elsewhere, like in your neighbor’s garden — and killing the grubs.

Nuance, my friends. Small differences matter, especially to the grub.

Today’s post is about how the joint employer question is different than the single employer question.

Here’s the difference. Suppose Mary is employed by the We-Provide-Services Company. Company B retains the We-Provide-Services Company to do something or other. Mary sues both We-Provide-Services and Company B, claiming discrimination of some sort. If the We-Provide-Services Company and Company B are unrelated independent businesses, the issue is whether they are joint employers. There’s a test for that.

If the We-Provide-Services Company and Company B are related, such as through common ownership, intermingled managers, or a subsidiary or joint venture relationship, then the issue is whether they are a single employer for purposes of assessing who is liable for any bad acts toward poor Mary. There’s a test for that too, but it’s a different test.

The single employer test looks at four factors that try to assess how closely related or intermingled the companies are.

The joint employment test focuses instead on Company B’s relationship to Mary, not it’s relationship with Mary’s direct employer, the We-Provide-Services Company. (Courts in the Fourth Circuit look at this issue differently, as explained here, but this is the general rule.)

A recent case from North Dakota helps to illustrate the difference — and the confusion.

The issue related to whether a contractor’s employee was also an employee of the party that retained the contractor. The two businesses were unrelated, so this is a question of joint employment.

The lawyers on both sides, however, missed the nuanced difference. Both sides briefed the issue by presenting the judge with the single employer test and arguing about how the facts fit its four factors.

This kind of mistake is not uncommon, and judges do it too. There’s so much nuance in the laws related to Who Is My Employee?, and lots of lawyers and judges don’t understand the intricacies. Fortunately, this federal judge understood the difference. The judge’s opinion discusses the fact that the lawyers argued the wrong test, and he instead applied the facts to the proper test — a common law agency test. He called it a hybrid right to control/economic realities test, but as a practical matter, the factors were a recitation of the common law right to control test.

The point is: Be aware of the nuanced differences in circumstances that require the use of different legal tests to determine Who Is My Employee?

Which test you use can make a big difference. Even if you’re not a grub.

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

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