Independent Contractor

On April 30, 2018, the California Supreme Court issued a long-awaited opinion in which it considered which test should be used to decide whether a worker asserting claims under a California Wage Order is an employee or an independent contractor.  The following Seyfarth One Minute Memo summarizes the case and what it means for employers.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The California Supreme Court, in Dynamex Operations v. Superior Court, held that “engage, suffer or permit to work” determines employee status for Wage Order claims, requiring a defendant disputing employee status to prove (A) the worker is free from control and direction of the hirer in connection with performing the work, both under contract and in fact; (B) the worker performs work outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and (C) the worker customarily engages in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hirer.

The Trial Court Decision

Delivery drivers Charles Lee and Pedro Chevez sued Dynamex Operations West for unlawfully classifying them and 1,800 other drivers as independent contractors. To argue that they were really employees, they cited California’s Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order No. 9. Their motion for class certification argued that, under Martinez v. Combs (2010), they were employees in that Dynamex knew that they provided services and had negotiated their rates. The trial court certified a class. Dynamex petitioned the Court of Appeal for a writ of mandate.

To view the full alert, please click on the link below:

http://www.seyfarth.com/publications/OMM050118-LE

Seyfarth Synopsis: The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday morning in Dynamex Operations v. Superior Court, a case addressing the legal standard for determining whether a worker should be classified as an independent contractor or an employee. We expect the Supreme Court’s opinion will be significant for any entity using independent contractors in California.

The Story Thus Far

As outlined in a previous blog article, the decision in Dynamex Operations v. Superior Court will be extremely important for all companies that use independent contractors, especially those in the emerging “gig economy.” Misclassifying workers can have painful consequences, involving not only liability for unpaid wages and employee benefits but also statutory penalties for each violation considered “willful.”

The Issue

In agreeing to review the case, the California Supreme Court defined the issue on appeal as to whether, in a misclassification case, a class may be certified based on the expansive definition of employee as outlined in the Wage Order language construed in Martinez v. Combs (2010), or on the basis of the common law test for employment set forth in S. G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations (1989). In short, the Supreme Court focused on whether to continue using the Borello test and on what test, if any, to apply instead.

The definition of employment identified in the Wage Orders is broader than the prior common law test. The Wage Orders define “employ” broadly to mean “to engage, suffer or permit to work.” In contrast, Borello focuses instead on a multi-factor balancing test that depends on the unique facts of each situation and that is more likely to recognize the existence of an independent contracting relationship.

Oral Argument

Dynamex Operations Goes First

In its opening argument, Dynamex praised the Borello test as a tried and true California rule and warned against the danger that uncertainty in the classification of workers would pose to California’s booming “gig economy.” Dynamex raised concerns with any judicial adjustment to the definition of employment that would usurp the legislature role.

Justice Kruger, however, wondered whether judicial adoption of a bright-line rule would not be more instructive for employers, and suggested, as a possibility, adopting the ABC test followed in such jurisdictions as New Jersey and Massachusetts. The ABC test says that three conditions must all concur for a worker to be an independent contractor: (1) freedom from actual control over the work, (2) work beyond the usual course of business and off company premises, and (3) engaging in an independent trade. Unless A, B, and C all concur, then the worker is an employee.

Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye raised an additional response to Dyanamex’s plea to leave this issue to the Legislature: if the ABC test is a stricter version of the Borello test, then why should the Supreme Court be precluded from adopting a new version of the test to ensure clarity in enforcement when, after all, it was the Supreme Court that had adopted the Borello test in the first place? Finally, Justice Kruger and Dynamex had a robust discussion about adopting a modified rule, where the ABC test would govern for some Labor Code provisions, but a different test may apply to others. Dynamex opined that this result would be confusing for employers and might result in individuals being employees for some purposes but independent contractors for others.

Aggrieved Independent Contractors Respond

In their responsive argument, the workers portrayed what they saw as the sorry plight of California independent contractors. The workers called independent contracts the new “serf-class”: people who work hard while receiving none of the Labor Code’s basic employee benefits. They argued that the Supreme Court should adopt a new, broader definition of employee to protect workers from harm. The workers seemed open to several outcomes, including (a) a broader definition for some Labor Code provisions, (b) the definition outlined in the Wage Orders, or (c) any other new employment test  that the Supreme Court might come to favor.

Justice Liu seemed skeptical about a broader test. He referred to an “Amazon Analogy.” Although most people know Amazon sells goods online, many people also view Amazon Prime (with its delivery services) as within Amazon’s usual course of business. Justice Liu then asked: if the Supreme Court were to adopt a strict interpretation of the ABC test, at what point would Amazon be considered a shipping business, meaning that all drivers who ship Amazon Prime goods would be employees of Amazon under the second ABC prong? This analogy caught the attention of Justices Cuellar and Justice Chin, who both seemed to appreciate how complicated, and blurry, a new test could be.

Dynamex Makes A (Brief) Comeback

In its rebuttal, Dynamex took up Justice Liu’s “Amazon Analogy” to argue why a flexible test is needed to ensure just results. Two Justices followed up. The first was Justice Liu, who asked whether other jurisdictions have applied the ABC prongs strictly. The second was Justice Chin, who closed oral argument with a pointed question that represents the concerns of many observers: which employment test best fits the modern economy? Dynamex responded that the body of developing case law as well as the uniformity of Borello’s application has suited California well and that it provides all of the factors needed to fully determine employment relationships.

Our Crystal Ball

Although one cannot read the minds of seven justices, we sense the Supreme Court will likely reject the call to leave this matter for the Legislature and will lean instead toward a judicially fashioned test that, in the view of most justices, will best fit the needs of the modern economy. The Supreme Court’s decision is expected within the next 90 days.

As always, we will remain vigilant and on the scene. Look for more updates about this case as they come out and in the meantime do not hesitate to reach out to your friendly neighborhood Seyfarth attorney for guidance or with any questions you might have.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The California Supreme Court, in Dynamex Operations v. Superior Court, has agreed to address the legal standard for determining whether a worker classified as an independent contractor is really an employee. The Supreme Court’s opinion is expected to be significant for anyone thinking of using independent contractors in California.

The Future of Work: A Surging Demand for Independent Contractors

Recent years have seen tremendous growth in the sharing economy, aka, the “gig economy,” which reflects the technological ability to quickly summon goods or services through a smart phone. While the new economy has grown rapidly, the relevant legal standards have not. Yet business owners continue to invest heavily into business models that have created tens of thousands of flexible jobs for workers classified as independent contractors. In the absence of legislative guidance tailored to the realities of the new economy, California courts and administrative agencies have struggled to apply the law developed during an earlier age.

The new economy is a powerful fact of life. According to Seyfarth’s “Future of Work” Outlook Survey, 45% of respondents expect their company’s demand for independent contractors to grow in the next five years. Companies in the areas of information technology and telecommunications are among those most likely to experience these developments, as opposed to companies in the areas of real estate and consumer staples. (A deeper analysis of our survey’s findings appears here.)

These survey responses provide a valuable snapshot, but employers are likely to change their tune based on the regulatory environment and any significant judicial rulings narrowing the use of independent contractors.

One such potential ruling could come in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court. The California Supreme Court has agreed to review a Court of Appeal decision that stunned employers by expanding the definition of “employee.” That definition of employee arguably could encompass many individuals traditionally retained as independent contractors.

When determining whether workers were independent contractors, many companies previously considered how much control the company exerted over a worker and how much a worker economically depended on the company. This framework provided some consistency.

Taking a turn, the Court of Appeal in Dynamex adopted the Wage Order’s much-broader definition of “employ,” meaning “to engage, suffer or permit to work.” As a result, the Court of Appeal expanded the meaning of the term “employee,” arguably extending it to nearly every labor relationship a company would be likely to have with an individual. The potential ramifications of such a definition upon the future use of independent contractors cannot be overstated. Indeed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and California Chamber of Commerce have both warned that a decision to affirm the lower court’s expansive ruling “would effectively eliminate independent contractor status for any use in California.”

Consequences of Misclassification

Making it more difficult to properly classify an independent contractor would only increase the risks of costly litigation. By now, readers should know that misclassifying California employees as contractors has dire consequences, including statutory penalties of $5,000 to $15,000 for each “willful” violation. Failing to properly classify workers can create liability for back wages, penalties, fines, and the assessment of back taxes. Additional exposure can also arise when misclassified workers, who would otherwise be entitled to employee benefits, have not received those benefits. California state agencies in search of employment-tax revenues have increased their enforcement efforts, including audits. In fact, the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency has agreed to jointly investigate independent contractor misclassification with the IRS, reflecting both agencies’ desire to increase enforcement.

California employers with operations in other states should also note that increased misclassification enforcement is not peculiar to the Golden State. In July 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division issued its Administrator’s Interpretation, concluding that “most workers are employees under the FLSA” in part due to the “expansive definition of ‘employ’ under the FLSA”; we previously observed this position to be an “unapologetic effort to restrict the use of independent contractors.” Today, it still remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration will redirect federal enforcement priorities away from independent contractor issues. But even if the federal government backs off of these issues, there is no indication that state governments and the ubiquitous plaintiffs’ bar will stop aggressively challenging independent-contractor classifications.

Scrutinize Your Existing Relationships with Independent Contractors

As always, employers should remain vigilant for new legal developments and should consult their employment counsel to scrutinize existing relationships with independent contractors.

Edited by Michael G. Cross.