Opinion Piece Asks California Not to Be the Pigeon in this Photo

Pigeon head Tuileries - independent contractor misclassification Todd LebowitzI took this picture last week in Paris, walking through the Jardin des Tuileries with my family, just outside the Louvre.  

If you think of the statue as being ride-share giants Uber and Lyft, and if you think of the California state legislature as the pigeon, you’ll know why Uber and Lyft’s chief executives joined forces to write this opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.  

As we explained here, California seems likely to pass a bill that would rewrite California law in a way that will instantly convert many — perhaps most — independent contractors into employees.  The bill would take the ABC Test created last year in the Dynamex case and apply it to the entire California Labor Code, as well as to state unemployment law. (Currently, the ABC Test applies only to state wage and hour claims, and a more neutral balancing test applies to other state law claims.)

The law, if passed, would undoubtedly fuel new claims against Uber and Lyft, alleging that ride-share drivers are employees under state law.

In the opinion piece, the companies argue in favor of legal reform, but in a way that does not threaten to change drivers into employees.

The Uber-Lyft proposal would secure three new types of protections for ride-share drivers, while safeguarding their status as independent contractors. The proposal would:

  1. Set up a portable benefits system for gig workers, including retirement savings accounts, paid time off, and lifelong learning opportunities;
  2. Create a drivers’ association, in partnership with state lawmakers and labor groups, to represent drivers’ interests and administer benefits; and
  3. Establish a new driver pay system that includes greater earnings transparency for the work performed between accepting a ride and dropping off a passenger after accounting for reasonable expenses.

So why can’t Uber and Lyft just do these things on their own? Because if they did, the current legal system would likely treat those acts of goodwill as evidence that Uber and Lyft were treating the drivers as employees.

Current labor laws were not written with the gig economy in mind. The law right now is an all-or-nothing proposition — independent contractor or employee. The modern economy, though, requires a middle ground — an alternative that allows app companies to provide greater benefits and protections to drivers without running the risk that these well-meaning gestures could convert the drivers into employees.

Pigeons are going to poop on statues forever. Marble heads provide a comfortable spot for loosening the ol’ avian bowels, and we all know it’s hard to find a good public toilet these days. But some things should not be set in stone. Let’s hope the California assembly backs off of the fast track for A.B. 5 and instead tries something new. The system proposed in the joint Uber-Lyft opinion piece would help drivers and would help the gig economy continue to thrive. 

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

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Has Ontario Gone Loony? Court Rejects Independent Contractor Arbitration Agreement

Common loon Ontario

Our northern neighbor, the common loon. Photo from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

According to OntarioTravel.net, Ontario’s official bird is the Common Loon. The loon is a water bird, regarded as an agile swimmer and a connosseur of the fine fish that populate Ontario’s lakes.

Loon has a second, seemingly unrelated definition too, though. According to dictionary.com, synonyms for “loony” include screwball, wacky, kooky, nutty, crazed, batty, lunatic, cuckoo, nuts, silly, psycho, berserk, ape, barmy, bonkers, cracked, daffy, daft, delirious, and demented.

For fans of arbitration agreements, a recent decision by the Ontario Court of Appeals might be regarded as a bit loony (using the non-water-bird definition). Ontario has generally been considered a province friendly to arbitration agreements. In Heller v. Uber Technologies, Inc., the court found Uber’s stock arbitration agreement to be invalid Continue reading

Arbitration Agreements Save Uber From Massive Class Action

uber victory arbitration agreements 2018

Two themes are often repeated in this blog: (1) Independent contractor relationships are under attack, and (2) there are a lot of things companies can do to protect themselves, but they need to be proactive, not wait until they get sued. I’ve also tried themes relating to song titles – like here (Led Zeppelin) and here (Tom Petty) – but that’s kind of not the point I’m trying to make right now.

These two themes came together nicely this week in a major ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Uber earned a big win, thanks to its arbitration agreements and a May 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision confirming that mandatory arbitration agreements should be enforced.

Uber has been a favorite target of the plaintiffs’ bar in independent contractor misclassification lawsuits. Uber has been trying to defeat class claims by asking courts to enforce the mandatory arbitration agreements signed by most of its drivers.

That fight has been going on since 2013, when a federal court in California rejected Uber’s bid to enforce its arbitration agreements. The California judge certified a class of 160,000 drivers, then certified another subclass of drivers, creating a massive class action that Uber tried to settle for $100 million. The judge in that case rejected the settlement as too small, but Uber’s long game in court appears to have paid off.

After the judge rejected the proposed settlement, the case was to proceed; but, remember, the judge had also rejected Uber’s attempt to enforce the arbitration agreements, which would have kept the matter out of court entirely. If the arbitration agreements were enforced, the drivers would have to litigate their claims individually, one-by-one, with no individual driver’s claim worth all that much money. The attractiveness of these claims for plaintiffs’ lawyers is in the massive dollars generated by consolidating tens of thousands of individual claims into class actions. Individual arbitrations do not have much lure.

In this week’s Court of Appeals decision, the arbitration agreements were upheld as valid and enforceable. Uber will not have to face this class action of 160,000+ California drivers. The jackpot settlement of $100 million is gone, and the drivers who wish to go forward will now have to pursue their claims drip-drip-drip, one-by-one, with only small amounts of money at issue in each case.

This ruling became inevitable after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Epic Systems decision in May 2018, which held that individual employee arbitration agreements are generally enforceable and do not violate workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

Based on the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had no choice but to rule that Uber’s arbitration agreements were indeed enforceable, overturning the district court judge’s 2013 decision that said they were not.

The plaintiffs tried to argue that since one of the lead plaintiffs opted out of arbitration, the entire potential class should be viewed as if everyone opted out of arbitration. But the Court was having none of that. A single class representative plaintiff doesn’t have the authority to cancel thousands of other contracts that he wasn’t a part of.

The lesson here is that arbitration agreements work. They are a potent weapon in defending against and preventing massive class action risks, especially for companies that rely heavily on independent contractors for their business model.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Update: Uber’s Misclassification Cases, Arbitration, and the Supreme Court

Independent contractor vs employee Uber misclassification lawsuit arbitration agreements IMG_1111Remember the children’s game called Red Light, Green Light? One ambitious youngster is selected as the traffic cop, who randomly shouts “red light” or “green light,” requiring all the children to run and stop and start in short bursts that would cause an adult human to tear an ACL.

That’s essentially what’s happening in the big Uber misclassification case that has been pending in California since 2014. The case is called O’Connor v. Uber Technologies and is being overseen by traffic cop / federal judge Edward Chen in San Francisco. If anyone ever gets to the finish line, it will eventually be determined whether Uber drivers are properly classified as independent contractors, rather than employees.

Continue reading