Here’s a Bizarre Lawsuit, Plus Tips for Avoiding Misappropriation Trade Secrets

A couple in Uttarakhan, India, has sued their 35-year old son for $650,000 on the grounds that he failed to provide them a grandchild. The monetary claim reflects the amount they supposedly invested in him over the years, apparently viewing him as some sort of horse stud when they paid for his education and wedding.

Their petition explains, “We killed our dreams to raise him” and “despite all our efforts, my son and his wife have caused mental torture by not giving us a grandchild.”

In the business world it seems more reasonable to demand a return on your investment in someone. But that has limits too.

Last week in Virginia, a jury awarded $2 billion to a software company for misappropriation of trade secrets, finding that a rival had paid a disloyal employee of the victim company to steal trade secrets and pass them along. Investing in someone to steal trade secrets is not kosher. Unlike the “no grandbabies” case, that seems like solid ground for a lawsuit.

While the theft of trade secrets appeared intentional here, it’s possible to acquire a rival’s confidential information unintentionally too. The risk may be especially high when you’re retaining an independent contractor who has expertise in an industry and who has likely worked for various competitors in the same space.

When retaining independent contractors, businesses should take steps to ensure they are not going to be acquiring confidential or trade secret information from the contractor.

Here’s an easy tip to help protect your company from inadvertently acquiring confidential or trade secret information from a competitor: Include in your independent contractor agreement a clause that prohibits the contractor from using any confidential or trade secret information from any past client or employer. Prohibit the contractor from incorporating any such information into any work that the contractor creates for your business.

The same type of clause can be inserted into your employment agreements.

While intentionally stealing a rival’s trade secrets is obviously a no-no, an accidental taking or an accidental incorporation of such information into your software or other systems can also create liability. Taking a clear stand that you prohibit that sort of thing will help avoid a problem later. And, if something bad does occur (assuming you didn’t solicit the improper disclosure), you’ll be in a much better place to defend against a misappropriation claim.

As for the Uttarakhan man and his wife, I don’t know what the best defense is to that sort of claim. But I do know the next family get-together is likely to be a bit uncomfortable.

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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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Not Dead Yet: Arbitration Agreements May Sit Dormant, But They Can Still Save You From a Class/Collective Action

Not dead yet. @SCMPNews

This spring has been a bad time for injured civilians who prefer not to be buried alive.

In Peru last month, a funeral procession was interrupted when the 36-year old car accident victim was heard banging on the lid of her coffin, trying to get out. Days earlier the woman had been pronounced dead, in what turned out to be an unfortunate mispronunciation.

In Shanghai, a nursing home mourned the passing of an elderly resident, who was placed in a body bag and sent to the mortuary. As seen in this video taken by a bystander, the mortuary workers unzipped the bag and found the man still moving. He was transferred to a hospital, which seems to me like a more appropriate place for someone still alive.

People may go quiet, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated as dead. The same holds true for individual arbitration agreements. They may exist quietly in the background, but courts can’t just ignore them, as a recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision made clear.

A plaintiff alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), claiming she was misclassified as an independent contractor and therefore was denied overtime pay. She asked the court to treat her lawsuit as a collective action, claiming that other contractors were also misclassified and were also denied overtime pay. In FLSA cases, plaintiffs have to opt in to join the class. The district court approved the distribution of opt-in notices to similarly situated contractors, letting them know about the lawsuit and their right to participate.

The defendant opposed the notices, pointing out that the contractors had all signed individual arbitration agreements that included class action waivers. They couldn’t opt in, the defendant argued, so they should not get the notice. When the court approved the notices anyway, the defendant filed a writ of mandamus with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the appeals court to intervene and stop the notices from going out.

The Fifth Circuit granted the writ and stopped the notices from going out. The Court of Appeals ruled that the arbitration agreements required all disputes to be resolved through individual arbitration, and therefore the contractors could not opt in to the lawsuit. Since they could not opt in, they could not be sent notices inviting them to opt in.

It’s unusual for a Court of Appeals to grant a writ of mandamus. But here, the Court of Appeals recognized that the arbitration agreements were very much alive, even if the contractors who signed them were silent in the background.

This case is a good reminder of the value of individual arbitration agreements with class action waivers. A well-drafted arbitration agreement will require all claims to be resolved on an individual basis and will include a waiver of the right to participate in any class or collective action. The agreement should also deprive the arbitrator of jurisdiction to preside over a class or collective action.

Businesses that rely on independent contractors should check their agreements and consider adding robust, carefully-drafted arbitration clauses.

Arbitration agreements can sit silently in the background for years, but that doesn’t mean they are dead.

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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 in Over Your Head: Set Up a Gatekeeper

Last month in Washington State, at a trailhead on the Olympic Peninsula, a woman dropped her cell phone in a pit latrine. Yes, that’s a flushless outhouse. The woman tried to retrieve the phone using a dog leash, then tried to use the dog leash to support herself as she reached down into the stinky muck. Dog leashes, however, are not meant for such endeavors, and — yes, this really happened — the leash failed. The woman fell head first into the latrine.

Making the best of a shitty situation, the woman found her phone, which she then used to call for help. The fire department rescued her, and the dispatch operator will be telling the story of that intake call forever.

The lesson here is: Know when to get help.

That lesson also applies to your company’s independent contractor relationships. Today’s tip is to set up a Gatekeeper System.

If your company is like most businesses, it’s simpler to contract with outside labor than to hire new employees. Operations managers or a procurement team are the people most likely to approve contracts for services. Because there are no employees being engaged in these contracts, the contracts don’t go to Human Resources, and they probably don’t get reviewed by Legal.

But every contract for services carries a risk that the individuals providing the services may be misclassified. Even if treated as independent contractors, those workers might be your employees under federal or state law. Or, if they’re being treated as employees of the business you contract with, they might be your joint employees. Both scenarios – independent contractor misclassification and joint employment – present legal risks.

But your operations managers or procurement team have not been trained to recognize those risks. They likely have never considered that the people providing those services might be deemed your company’s employees.

To protect against these risks, set up a Gatekeeper System. That would be a policy that says, anytime we retain non-employees to provide a service, there must be a written contract and it must be reviewed by a specific individual, the gatekeeper.

The gatekeeper will be trained to issue-spot and to recognize circumstances that may present an elevated risk of misclassification or joint employment. The gatekeeper can raise concerns with the legal department. Or maybe the gatekeeper is part of the legal team.

Setting up a Gatekeeper System is easy. It’s just a policy requiring a specific layer of review whenever non-employees are retained to perform a service. Make sure everyone authorized to enter into contracts for the business knows of the policy. Then train your gatekeeper to issue spot and to escalate for further analysis when necessary.

The point is that someone needs to know to look out for these risks. You can only protect yourself against the risks you have identified. Once you get sued or hit with an audit, it’s too late.

Just like it was too late for our friend the Washington hiker, who should have asked for help a bit earlier — before getting in over her head.

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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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It’s There, Even If You Can’t See It: Court Reinstates Trump-Era Independent Contractor Test, and It’s Effective Now.

There’s an optical illusion known as a negative afterimage. If you stare at the red dot on this woman’s nose for about 15 seconds, then look at a blank wall, you’ll see the woman on your wall – but in full color and with dark hair. And yet, there is no woman on your wall. 

You see what isn’t there because the illusion tricks the photoreceptors in your retina.

Monday’s ruling by a federal judge in Texas also has us seeing what isn’t there – or what was there and then wasn’t there – or something like that, but with respect to the test for independent contractor classification. 

In early January 2021, the Trump DOL issued a new regulation that sought to provide clarity on how to determine whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Even though the FLSA is a federal law that is supposed to apply everywhere, different courts around the country used different versions of the FLSA’s Economic Realities Test to make that determination.

Under the new regulation, 29 CFR Part 795, there would be just one test. It was simple, and the same rule would apply all over the country. The regulation was scheduled to take effect March 8, 2021. But a few days before the effective date, the Biden Administration postponed implementation of the new rule. Then in May, they rescinded it. They replaced it with nothing. If you go to the Code of Federal Regulations, there is no 29 CFR Part 795. (Here, try it!)

But Monday’s ruling said to stare a little harder. It’s there.

The court ruled that the Biden Administration’s effort to delay and then withdraw Part 795 was unlawful and violated the Administrative Procedure Act. The delay provided too short a comment period, failing to offer the public a meaningful period to provide input. The withdrawal was improper because the DOL failed to consider alternatives and instead “left regulated parties without consistent guidance.” 

Because the delay and withdrawal of the Trump era rule were deemed unlawful, the court ruled that Part 795 did, in fact, go into effect March 8, 2021, and “remains in effect.”

Who knew?

So now you probably want to know what the rule is, since you cannot find it online in the Code of Federal Regulations – at least as of Tuesday night.

The test in Part 795 identifies two “core factors” for determining the independent contractor vs. employee question under the FLSA. If both factors point in the same direction, the issue is generally decided. If the core factors point in different directions, three “other factors” are considered.

The Two Core Factors

As we explained here, The core factors are:

• The nature and degree of the individual’s control over the work; and

• The individual’s opportunity for profit or loss.

The control factor supports independent contractor status if the worker “exercises substantial control over key aspects of the work,” including setting schedules, selecting projects, and being allowed to work for others.

The profit or loss factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the worker has the opportunity to earn profits or incur losses based on the exercise of initiative, managerial skill, business acumen or judgment, or based on management of his or her own investments or capital expenditures. Examples of investments may include hiring helpers or buying equipment. 

Other Factors

If the two core factors do not determine the issue, three other factors are to be considered:

• Amount of skill required for the work;

• Degree of permanence of the working relationship between the individual and the potential employer; and

• Whether the work is part of an integrated unit of production.

Amount of skill required. This factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the work requires specialized skill or training that the potential employer does not provide.

Degree of permanence. This factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the work is definite in duration or sporadic. This factor supports employee status if the work is indefinite. Work that is seasonal by nature does not weigh in favor of independent contractor status, even though it’s definite in duration.

Whether the work is part of an integrated unit of production. This factor is likely to receive the heaviest criticism from worker advocates. The “integrated unit of production” factor comes from a pair of 1947 U.S. Supreme Court cases. Over the years, this factor has morphed into the question of whether the work is “integral” to the potential employer’s business. Part 795 takes a firm stance here, saying that — based on the 1947 Supreme Court decisions — the relevant question is whether the work is “integrated,” not whether it is “integral.”

This factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the work is “segregable” from the potential employer’s processes for a good or service. For example, a production line is an integrated process for creating a good. A software development program may require an integrated process for creating a computer program. Work that is performed outside of an integrated unit of production is more likely performed by an independent contractor.

What Happens Now?

First, the DOL can appeal the decision to the Fifth Circuit. We expect that will happen. In the meantime, a stay might be issued or might not be issued.

Second, Part 795 is now in effect, unless a stay is issued. 

Third, it’s a fair question how much this really matters anyway. The test was not intended to change the outcome in most instances. It was instead intended to articulate more clearly how these determinations were already being made. The two “core factors” were already determinative in almost all cases, even if courts were not explicitly identifying two factors as being most important. Also, the Circuit Courts of Appeal do not have to adopt the DOL’s interpretation of the test. They can go on using their five-part and six-part tests, or they can apply the Part 795 analysis. 

The Part 795 should now be the applicable test. But we shall see.

If you stare hard enough at your handy copy of the Code of Federal Regulations, and then look at a blank wall, Part 795 just might appear.

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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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Ice Fishing, Prostitution and Emails: Think Before You Express Legal Concerns (Including About Misclassification)

The lake at Hudson Springs Park

In this post, we’ll set the bar low. Today’s theme is “Don’t say stupid [stuff].”

Those of you living outside Northeast Ohio may have missed this recent gem. During a city council meeting on whether to allow ice fishing at Hudson Springs Park, Hudson’s mayor opposed the proposal — on the grounds that ice fishing shanties might be used for prostitution.

“If you open this up to ice fishing, while on the surface it sounds good, then what happens next year? Does somebody come back and say, ‘I want an ice shanty in Hudson Springs Park for ‘X’ amount of time?’ And if you then allow ice fishing with shanties, then that leads to another problem. Prostitution.”

Don’t say stupid stuff. After being widely mocked, the mayor resigned a week later.

A similar rule of thumb applies when evaluating your independent contractor relationships.

It’s a great idea to look carefully at those relationships and to examine whether misclassification might exist. But be careful what you put in writing. Don’t write stupid stuff. Emails are a plaintiff’s lawyer’s best friend.

If you think your business might be misclassifying its contractors, you get a gold star for being proactive. (Congratulations! It will look great on your chart on the refrigerator.) But don’t express that opinion in an internal company email. Pick up the phone and call someone. Or better yet, get your legal counsel involved. Not only can you have privileged, non-discoverable email communications with counsel, you can also get helpful legal advice.

Email, IMs, DMs, texts, Slack, and Team chats are all discoverable in litigation. If your business gets sued for misclassifying contractors, you do not want a trove of emails from HR to the CFO saying, “I think we may be misclassifying our contractors” or “I saw Lebowitz’s blog, and I think our contractors are probably employees under the Right to Control test,” or “That California ABC test is a real killer. There’s no way we meet part B.”

Those are helpful thoughts — and you all know I always recommend being proactive about these things — but please, please, pick up the phone instead. Call your CFO. Call your company president. Call your lawyer. Don’t write it in a discoverable email or text or IM or chat. Don’t create evidence that will allow a plaintiff’s lawyer to say, “Not only was this business misclassifying its contractors, but they knew they were doing it. Just look at this email.”

Your good intentions in identifying a possible issue can be used against you. But be careful how you communicate that concern. Say it, don’t write it.

But don’t say it at a city council meeting.

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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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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.

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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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Iguanas with Jackets: Here’s One Exhibit to Include with Every Staffing Agency Agreement

I met this little guy in Costa Rica, 2017

It happens every year.

When the temperature in Florida drops into the 30s, the iguanas freeze. Unable to regulate their body temperature, they drop out of trees, landing on sidewalks and in yards like solid rubber toy animals.

The freeze doesn’t kill them though. It just stuns them for a while, then they eventually warm up, reanimate, and go about their daily iguana business.

Getting stunned like this can’t be avoided for the iguanas. Amazon is not yet selling iguana jackets, and online delivery to lizards is notoriously complicated. (Note to self: Business opportunity?)

But unlike iguanas, businesses can reduce their chances at getting stunned — at least when it comes to avoiding lawsuits from staffing agency workers.

When staffing agency workers file wage and hour lawsuits, they often sue both the staffing agency and the business where they worked. The workers allege that both are joint employers, often bringing class claims or a collective action.

Businesses that carefully draft their staffing agency agreements will have some natural defenses against these claims. I’ve written about that here. I call this strategy The Monster with Three Eyes.

But there’s a fourth strategy too. Force individual staffing agency workers to arbitrate these claims instead of pursuing them in court, and include class action waivers with the agreement to arbitrate.

There are two ways to introduce arbitration agreements with class waivers in your staffing agency agreements.

First, you can mandate that staffing agencies sign arbitration agreements with their own employees. Some courts have found that arbitration agreements between a staffing agency and its employee protect the third party business too, even if the third party hasn’t signed the agreement.

But that approach carries risk. The agency’s arbitration agreement might be poorly written, or it might include terms that make it unenforceable. Your protection is only as good as whatever form agreement the agency presents to their workers.

There’s a second approach I like better. It goes like this:

  • Draft your own individual arbitration agreement (with class waiver) for staffing agency workers to sign, requiring them to arbitrate any claims against you. Make it mutual, of course.
  • Append it to the staffing agency agreement as an exhibit.
  • Include a clause in the staffing agency agreement requiring the agency not to assign anyone to your business unless they’ve first signed this agreement.

The agreement will be short. No more than two pages. It can also include an agreement by the agency worker to protect your confidential information and assign inventions.

If the document is properly characterized as an offer by your business, accepted by the worker, you have offer plus acceptance equals contract — even if your business doesn’t sign it. There is specific language you can include that can make that work.

So if you use staffing agency workers, don’t assume you won’t get sued as a joint employer. You particularly want to avoid class and collective actions, and this type of arbitration agreement will do the trick.

Plan for bad weather in advance. Include this layer of protection with your staffing agency agreements. Consider it your own little iguana jacket.

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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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Keep Litigation Far Away: Tips for Nonprofits so Volunteers Won’t Be Considered Employees

Jonathan photographed in April 2021. (Photo: Xben911 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Jonathan turns 190 this year, but you won’t see his mug on the cover of People. That’s because Jonathan lives a solitary life in St. Helena, a remote volcanic island in the South Atlantic. Once a week, he is hand-fed cabbages, cucumbers, carrots, and apples to boost his nutritional intake. Jonathan is a giant tortoise, and he is believed to be the oldest living land animal.

You could volunteer to help feed Jonathan, but St. Helena is hard to get to. The island is 1,200 miles west of Africa, and commercial air service is limited. Sea transport is available on the RMS St. Helena, but it takes five days to get there from Cape Town.

If you want to volunteer closer to home, however, opportunities abound. Nonprofits thrive on the services of volunteers. But every once in a while, we hear of a volunteer who later claims to be an employee and who wants to be paid.

A recent case against the American Film Institute serves as a good reminder that expectations should be clearly established when working with volunteers.

When engaging volunteers, consider asking all volunteers to sign a short acknowledgement. Consider including these types of representations in the acknowledgement, customized to fit the specific project and organization:

  • That this is volunteer work and is purely optional;
  • That the decision to work is made freely, without pressure or coercion;
  • That the volunteer does not expect to be paid; and
  • That the work is being performed to support a nonprofit organization, and is being performed for [insert] objective [e.g., public service / religious / charitable / humanitarian / civic / some other similar non-commercial].

If the work could result in physical injury or damage to the individuals’s clothing or other property, consider adding that the individual acknowledges the risks (e.g., bodily injury, damage to personal property), knowingly assumes these risks, and will not hold the nonprofit responsible if those things occur.

Please don’t use the exact language above. This is not legal advice or a template. I’m just giving you ideas here — for the greater good. Work with counsel to draft an appropriate agreement.

Be sure the volunteer work is really voluntary. The voluntariness of the work was at issue in “the Lord’s Buffet” case a few years back, which has quite the backstory.

Volunteer service is important, and nonprofits unfortunately need to protect themselves against the occasional ungrateful troublemaker.

A simple acknowledgement can go a long way toward keeping litigation far away — like St. Helena and Jonathan, 1,200 miles from the nearest land mass.

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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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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!

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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 Stuck Naked: Tips for Enforceable Arbitration Agreements When Using Staffing Agency Workers

He was in here. Really. Source: Syracuse Fire Dept Facebook

A Syracuse man was rescued from inside the walls of a historic theater last month after spending two days trapped, naked. The man apparently had entered the building’s crawlspace (why?) and fell from the ceiling into a gap between walls in the men’s restroom. No word on why he was au naturale.

But I’m sure he was glad to be freed from this unexpected situation. He should have planned better — like by not hiding in a crawlspace or, if he had a really, really good reason to hide there, by at least wearing clothes.

You can protect your business from unexpected situations (different ones), such as by making sure your staffing agency agreements include valid arbitration clauses with the staffing agency’s workers. The goal here is to avoid being left naked and stuck, if faced with a joint employment claim.

In a recent Oklahoma case, two staffing agency workers sued the staffing agency and the company where they provided services, alleging a failure to pay overtime.

The company where they worked filed a motion to compel arbitration, arguing that the arbitration agreement the workers signed with the staffing agency should cover all claims against both defendants. The district court initially ruled that the arbitration agreement was only between the worker and the staffing agency, and so it could not be relied upon by the other company. Motion denied.

But the Tenth Circuit disagreed, finding that the non-signatory company could enforce the agreement because the plaintiffs’ claims “allege substantially interdependent and concerted misconduct” against the two defendants. The plaintiffs were therefore “estopped from avoiding their duty to arbitrate their claims arising out of their employment relationship.”

That was good news in this case, but I wouldn’t count on that result every time. This case turned on Oklahoma estoppel law. But with proper planning, you can achieve the same result.

Here’s how:

First, in your agreement with staffing agencies, require the agencies to have all individuals assigned to perform services at your company sign an individual arbitration agreement.

Second, make sure it’s not just any old arbitration agreement, but one that includes customized terms. For example:

  • Require the worker to acknowledge that signing is a condition to being placed at your company.
  • Make sure the scope of covered claims is broad enough to include claims that are not just against the staffing agency.
  • List your company as a third party beneficiary with authority to enforce the agreement.
  • Make the obligation to arbitrate bilateral and binding on your company, even though your company will not sign the agreement. In other words, if you agree to perform services at the company, the company will agree to arbitrate any claims against you.

There are a few more tricks of the trade, but these are some of the key items. Keep the agreement short, and use simple language.

With some careful advance planning, you can avoid being left naked and stuck if faced with a joint employment lawsuit filed by staffing agency workers.

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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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