Tag Archives: uber lawsuit

The Independent Contractor vs. Employee Issue Gets Kinky

Although some think whether an individual is an independent contractor or an employee is a new legal question brought about by the gig economy digital platforms like Uber, the truth of the matter is the issue has been around for decades. As I say in my new book, Thriving in the Gig Economy  due out in May , when the news of the Uber lawsuit first broke, my former CFO called me from Toronto just to reminisce about old times in the compliance wars.  It was remarkable to us, that so many people and the media for sure seemed to view the Uber situation as a new development.

Of course the employment lawyers in the crowd also appreciate how pervasive this problem has been.  In its recent blog post, Littler chose to honor April Fool's Day by recounting some of the more bizarre employment cases that occurred this year.  http://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/these-foolish-things-the-oddest-56353/,  My favorite was the case of a strip club in Ohio, where an exotic dancer sued the bar on the grounds that she should have been classified as an employee rather than as an independent contractor.

Credit J.D.S. from Shutterstock.com

There were several considerations arguing for independent contractor status.  Dancers were not paid by The Brass Pole, but rather by its patrons for individuals dances.  Dancers also made their own schedules and provided their own materials/costumes.  The bar offered no training; only experienced dancers were engaged.  Whether they were able to work for other establishments was a bit murky, but there was no explicit prohibition.  The Brass Pole did have a number of rules  the dancers needed to abide by including no chewing gum on stage, never refusing a drink and no boyfriends/spouses in the bar during the performances. http://www.lazzarolawfirm.com/Lester-opinion.pdf These rules were not meant to impose direction or control, but rather to ensure the efficient operation of the establishment.

The definition of an independent contractor, or for that matter, an employee, is never simple.  The Sixth Circuit court in Ohio used what they refer to as an "Economic Realities" test.  The six factor test, as outlined in the legal opinion in the case is based on:  "1) the permanency of the relationship between the parties; 2) the degree of skill required for the rendering of the services; 3) the worker’s investment in equipment or materials for the task; 4) the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss, depending upon his skill; ... 5) the degree of the alleged employer's right to control the manner in which the work is performed[; and] ... [6)] whether the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business."

The first five items seemed to indicate that the dancers could be valid independent contractors. The dancers were regular, experienced and supplied their own costumes.  They determined when and how long they performed, which determined their income, and little to no control was exerted over them.  The problem, however, was whether the dancers were an integral part of the business.  Apparently the proprietor did attempt to claim that they were a bar which happened to have exotic dancers, rather than an exotic dancing locale that served drinks.  The judge didn't buy that argument and ordered a summary judgement for the plaintiffs, saying, "“[n]o reasonable juror could conclude that customers primarily came to the club for its other offerings, which included beer, liquor, and frozen burgers from Sam’s Club.”http://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/these-foolish-things-the-oddest-56353/

At least the Brass Pole case was resolved.  The larger Uber lawsuit still has yet to be fully argued.  I for one am hopeful that it will be put to the test, because it could be this high profile case which finally puts some clarity on this very ambiguous area of the law.

The Gig Economy – A Class Act…or not…

gig economy

Since I am working on my book, Thriving in the Gig Economy, I have been paying particular attention to the various Uber  employment lawsuits.  Even though  I am focusing on the high end of the gig economy where independent consultants sell their services and intellectual capital, the commodity end of Uber drivers can't be ignored, since it seems to garner all of the headlines.

This week a rather important ruling occurred that seemed to receive very little attention, which is surprising, since it suggests Uber's independent contractor lawsuits may lose class action status.

Last week,  a Ninth Circuit panel effectively reversed a decision from 2015 . A year ago, a judge had said that that the arbitration agreement in Uber's contract with its drivers was unenforceable.  The contract was designed to say if you have any dispute with us, Uber, you need to resolve it through arbitration rather than through the courts.  In this particular case, three drivers had sued Uber for saying they violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) when the company ran background checks on their driving records.  The FCRA, as all recruiting managers know, is the law that requires candidates for employment authorize any  background checks.   The decision said that Uber's arbitration clauses were fair, valid and enforceable.

By asserting that the arbitration clauses are valid in this case will have implications in the attempts of some drivers to create a class action.  As an outside observer, I applaud this.  Since I have the gig economy on the brain  and am an avid Uber customer, I have taken to quizzing all of my drivers about there thoughts on the lawsuit.  I wish I had thought to jot down the results, since my sample size is now in statistically valid territory.  That said, my recollections of the results are these:

  • Only one of about 25 wanted to be an employee
  • 2-3 did not know about the lawsuit at all
  • The majority did it part time to fit their schedule , as one said to me last Sunday, "why watch a football game when I can earn some extra cash for 2 hours?"
  • Most had other jobs including teacher, masseuss, contractors, programmers, hairdressers etc.
  • A large minority also worked for the other driving services

My very unscientific conclusion then is that it is a very diverse driver pool.  A key attribute of a class action lawsuit is that the participants in the class are largely similar.  I don't know that this is the case.  It is time for the independent contractor laws to be brought into the current century in a time when the gig economy of indepndent workers of all sorts is growing.  Potentially these lawsuits facing Uber will help make that happen. .

Wrestling the independent contractor problem

Independent Contractors and Entertainment Law

This week  World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) was sued on behalf of dozens for former wrestlers who claim the company hid the adverse neurological effects of repeated poundings received in the wrestling ring. This misrepresentation and concealment of the potential injuries faced was compounded by the fact that the wrestlers are not employees, but independent contractors  who are not covered by insurance .images

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must first say I have never understood why wrestling is considered a sport. ( Similarly I never understood why boxing is  in the Olympics either. )

The truth of the matter is  WWE is not a sport, but rather  entertainment. They are not legitimate contests, but rather scripted promotions, with specially choreographed moves designed to titillate the  audience.   These intentional moves are part of the reason the plaintiffs are seeking to be seen as employees; they were required to do these moves , hence WWE exerted direction and control, ergo there is an employment relationship. 

Of course, it is not that simple.  This claim has been made several times over the years , yet the issue has never been resolved.  The claims were not dismissed, but settled which means the body of law governing the relationship has never been addressed. In other words, WWE has successfully avoided the legal determination of  the employment status of the wrestlers.

As a rational and fairly non violent person, it is hard for me to believe that any entertainer engaged in body slamming and head bashing moves would be unaware of the inherent physical and neurological risks involved.  Given the litigious nature of America, entertainment and sports, it is also hard to believe that the contracts committing the talent were silent on this subject. None the less, it does appear this suit could have merit.

In response to an earlier lawsuit in 2007, the WWE replied that its talent were independent contractors because they could negotiate their own contracts aimages-1nd had no corporate duties.   They were much like the talent on soap operas, the company argued. However, the argument is specious on several counts.  First, employees can also negotiate their agreements, so that is not a differentiation.  Second, they have duties in terms of dress code and appearance requirements.  And although a comparison could be made to soap opera talent, that  talent is unionized.  Jess Ventura tried and failed to unionize the WWE talent, but perhaps that is another option.

Various legal experts have chimed in on the independent contractor issue. Since independent contractor is an undefined term in the law, it is typically governed by the IRS 20 points.  These 20 conditions need not all be true to make one an independent contractor, which adds to the ambiguity.  According to a recent University of Louisville Law Review study, the  consensus seems to be that WWE wrestlers meet the employee criteria in 16 of the 20 points. Most legal experts seem to see it the plaintiffs way.

Many of the wrestling cognoscenti have lamented the fact that few wrestlers wanted to challenge their employment status in the courts.  Well that day has now come.  I can’t help but wonder if all the focus on uber drivers and independent contractor status didn’t prompt some additional discussions. WWE says the suit will be quickly dismissed.  I am interested to wait and see.

 

I am Uber the Uber Lawsuit

Uber Lawsuit and The Independent Contractor

Last month, Uber settled the  class action lawsuit involving its drivers in Mass and CA. The court papers reveal that the settlement was $84 million, while some estimates put actual damages, had they lost as trial at anywhere from $750 million to $4.1billion.  Is anyone surprised they settled?

Part of me hoped that the case would continue to the courts, since such a case might  have brought some needed clarity to the mess that is independent contractor  versus employee regulations.

In 1993, I started a firm, Collabrus, because of this very ambiguity.   Collabrus acted as an employer for consultants during a project when the nature of the work or the client’s risk profile warranted that structure. It offered health insurance as well as specialized benefits designed for consultants, like low cost errors and omissions insurance. In setting up and running that business I learned more about independent contractor compliance than I ever cared to know, hence my interest in the Uber case.

I thought, had it continued, the Uber case could go either way. One of the reasons that this is such an ambiguous area is because “independent contractor” is an undefined term in the law. Much of our employment law is derived from British master servant laws which date back to the 14th century. In fact, they were developed following the massive carnage of the bubonic plague; since so many had died, laws were needed to define who of the remainder were the masters and who were the servants. Back then independent contractors (ICs) were not part of the picture.

Since there is no legal definition of an IC, though some states have done so, tests have been developed that take into account agency law constructs as well as other factors. The IRS has put the most widely used framework together in its “20 Points” that define an independent contractor. These include things like having their own tools, being able to experience a financial loss, and receiving no training. Unfortunately, not all of the conditions need to be met, and some are more important than others. This makes for a very murky picture of who may be an IC and who may be an employee. In the last 20 years, the two key things that businesses have drawn from the “20 Points” are that the most important considerations are direction and control. If you direct and/or control the work of someone, they are likely your employee.

So lets consider the Uber driver. One thing Uber has going for them is that they don’t train their drivers; drivers come to them knowing how to operate a vehicle. Uber may certify that the driving record be clean, but this wouldn’t be considered training or direction. The fact that drivers can set their own schedule is also a plus for Uber, since it reduces that sense of control. The fact that so many drivers are very part-time, i.e. less than 10 hours, is also a plus for them. Technology, though, muddies the picture. Drivers are given an iPhone by Uber to be able to hook up to their ride-haling platform. As such, Uber is providing the tools to some extent. Perhaps the biggest issue, and the one that an Administrative Law Judge highlighted in a ruling in 2015 where he deemed a Southern California driver an employee, is that Uber sets the pricing of all rides. As such, this is preeminent control over the driver.

Given my interest in the subject and being a very regular customer of Uber, I quiz every driver about their thoughts on the lawsuit.  I have yet to encounter a driver who wants to be an employee.  Most are teachers or students or retirees, who want the flexibility of time. The one suggestion I did get was that Uber could have done a better job helping the driver prepare for the tax implications of being an IC; as one teacher said, he'd always been a W2 employee, so it never occurred to him that he needed to save all of his receipts.  So maybe Uber just needs a wonderful flyer, brochure or even app, entitled"Making the Most Money with Uber  - How to Manage your Business Expenses."  That seems like it would be a lot cheaper than another court case.

 

Expertise 15 years later

Expertise and the Independent Consultant

I recently reread my book, A New Brand of Expertise, published in 2001. It was a book about, as the tag line said, how ” free agents, independent consultants and interim managers are transforming the world of work.”

bookIt was an odd experience, after all of these years to read the words. Perhaps more prolific authors are used to it, but for me it was very strange. I was surprised at the passages I didn’t recall at all, (really, I wrote that?) including some rather remarkable anecdotes. I had to laugh at the few (and luckily there were only a few) references that didn’t hold up at all; for example, my advice to new consultants to build a personal brand offered Martha Stewart as the role model. Obviously this was written before her prison sentence. My opening chapter referenced the Donna Reed show, because her husband, ” the company man” was becoming an anachronism. My guess is there isn’t a millennial around who could relate to that TV reference. (Oops, I am dating myself, but I only saw the show in reruns as a very young child…)

What dismayed me was one aspect of the forecast I made 15 years ago about what would happen to this nascent independent marketplace in the years ahead. I had suggested that on the horizon there could be some simplification of the legal ambiguity that was a threat to the dynamic growth of an independent talent market. I offered hope that U.S. 344, the Independent Contractor Simplification Act, authored by then Senator Kit Bond of Missouri would pass. I was overly optimistic. Not only did it not pass, it never made it to the floor — It died in committee the following year.

And now, the independent contractor issue is in the limelight again as the “gig ” economy has been caught up in the ambiguous regulatory environment, as firms like Uber, Handy and Instacart try to maneuver in the anachronistic definition of employment today. . In the meantime, the free agent and interim management part of the gig economy has only continued to grow. Perhaps the sharing economy, led by the Uber driver lawsuit, will help bring much needed clarity to this issue. Isn’t it about time?

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