Independent Contractor

I have handled almost 100 unemployment insurance audits by the New Jersey DOL, where the underlying gravamen is that certain individuals are or are not independent contractors. The Auditors enforce the law very strictly and follow, in my view, an almost mechanistic approach in their determinations that virtually every 1099 person they audit is an “employee.”

Fireworks display illustrationWell, in a very interesting New Jersey Appellate Division decision, the Court found that pyrotechnicians at a fireworks manufacturer were “true” independent contractors. This decision reversed the NJ Commissioner of Labor (who himself had reversed an ALJ) who had ruled they these people were “employees.” The case is entitled Garden State Fireworks Inc. v. New Jersey Department of Labor And Workforce Development, and issued from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

The New Jersey unemployment statute is comprised of the famous or infamous ABC test. That test requires that an individual’s work is not controlled by or directed by the employer, the work they do is performed outside normal business places and away from the primary business location, and that the individual is engaged in another profession or other business, meaning they would not be affected by a loss of income if their employment ends. To put it mildly, this is a very difficult test for a putative employer to prevail upon.

Herein, the pyrotechnicians worked for Garden State Fireworks Inc. only a few days each year, so there was no control. They also had full time jobs or were retired and thus were not economically dependent on Garden State. The Company also did not direct the technicians as to the manner of setting up the fireworks displays and they did not work in the factory. The Court stated “the ABC test is fact-sensitive. We look to the substance of the relationship, not solely its form. Here, it is difficult to conceive that an individual who does work for a company one to three days a year, while working full-time in another profession, could be reasonably considered an employee of that company.”

Although the Office of Administrative Law agreed that the technicians satisfied the “ABC test,” the Commissioner of the NJ Department of Labor, as is his right, reversed this decision, concluding that the ALJ misapplied the ABC test. The Appellate Division panel rejected the Commissioner’s reasoning as to each of the elements.

The Takeaway

Maybe this is a sign from the New Jersey courts that they are going to start interpreting the UI statute in a more common sense, flexible way given the realities of modern day business. That would be a big plus for employers because the playing field would be made level.

Maybe….

I have blogged on this topic many times but I never tire of it. What is the way to defeat a class action? The magic bullet? The answer? Too much individual scrutiny is needed! Another Judge has proven me right on this. A federal judge has denied a motion to certify a class of distributors who distributed products for a bakery with brands such as Wonder Bread and Nature’s Own. The drivers alleged that they were misclassified as independent contractors and should have been overtime-eligible employees. The case is entitled Soares et al. v. Flowers Foods Inc. et al. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.

Bakery
Copyright: maxsheb / 123RF Stock Photo

The judge acknowledged that there were common questions as to the drivers’ substantive claims. However, it was the varying nature of their businesses, such as differences in operations, whether they hired their own “employees” and whether they did business with other entities that would have necessitated the individual evaluation(s). The Judge noted that “individualized issues over how to determine which distributors personally serviced their routes and whether the distributors operated distinct businesses prevents common questions of fact or law from predominating, and class wide treatment is not superior to individual actions.”

The class members bought exclusive rights to sell products in designated geographic territories and were responsible for delivering, displaying and selling the products in their chosen territories. The agreements designated the distributor as “an independent contractor with the resources, expertise and capability to act as a distributor.” The documents also specifically stated that the distributors would not be subject to Company control “as to the specific details or manner” of their business. In October 2015, they filed suit alleging that the Company misclassified them as independent contractors.

The Judge noted that although the class was confined to distributors who “personally serviced” their routes, the sorting out of those distributors that actually did that and when they did that “cannot be answered in one fell swoop.” The Court indicated that some distributors did engage their own employees who performed the routes some of the time and neither party could show through evidence, which distributors “personally serviced” their routes and which did not or how many days they did or did not personally service the routes.

The Court stated that “there would need to be mini-trials into these distributors’ recollections of how often they personally serviced their routes, and when and how often, if at all, they provided distribution services for other companies. Thus, some distributors might be found to operate businesses distinct from Flowers’ operation, while for others this factor would weigh in favor of an employment relationship, and thus this factor is not subject to common proof.”

The Takeaway

This is the object lesson for employer-defendants. I believe these independent contractor cases are peculiarly susceptible to these defenses. The employer must always look at and focus upon the “individual scrutiny” defense because it could be a single stroke method of making the whole thing go away.

The President has not yet nominated an Administrator for the DOL Wage and Hour Division and the new Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, has not named a political adviser to work with the Wage and Hour Division’s careerists. Thus, without new policy guidance, DOL field investigators seem to be enforcing minimum wage and overtime laws by adhering to and following policies that existed before January 20, 2017.

With that said, there are signs that some local DOL offices may be re-thinking their attitude toward businesses on their own, with their thinking being that the DOL will adopt, as an official stance, a more business-friendly enforcement policy. For example, there are signs that investigators are not keying in on joint employer relationships and may not be so quick to assess double damages (liquidated damages) on wage assessments made.

U.S. Department of Labor headquarters
By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Alfred Robinson, a former WHD Administrator, and someone likely to know, has stated that. “I’ve seen offices that maybe pushed liquidated damages or things of that nature beforehand are not so adamant about it this year.”  He added that, “I read the tea leaves as suggesting that hopefully some reason is coming into some of the enforcement practices.”

The agency has more than 1,000 investigators and the lack of leadership in the “main office” could make it harder for the agency to speak in a unified manner.  A long time ex-WHD official observed “until there’s political leadership in place below the Secretary, I think we’re going to see wage-and-hour on automatic pilot, and one of the consequences of that is that some of the district offices are left to their own devices.”

Some lawyers believe that the DOL is taking a more neutral enforcement stance thus far. In contrast, there are reports that some investigators are becoming more aggressive, as they set short time frames for the production of documents as a component of an investigation.

Under President Obama, the DOL significantly increased the number and kinds of cases on which it would assess liquidated damages. This is expected to slow down, as it is a big hammer for the agency, especially in an administrative context. As far as guidance issuing, the closest thing to the implementation of policies was the withdrawal of the two Administrator Interpretations on independent contractor status and what constitutes a joint employer relationship.

The Takeaway

 I expected the DOL to be more business friendly under this Administration, but if the agency does not get organized, there will be no clear direction. Maybe that is a good thing for the employer-defendant world.

Maybe not…

The Obama DOL had issued two so-called “white papers” one on independent contractor status (Administrator Interpretation No 2015-1).and the other on joint employer status (Administrator Interpretation No. 2016-1). These documents outlined the agency’s position on these two crucial issues and not surprisingly, took a very pro-employee perspective. Well now, in the stroke of a pen (or two pens), those Interpretations have been completely rescinded.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta
By US Department of Labor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Secretary of Labor, Alex Acosta, stated that the agency would withdraw these Interpretations. In a statement, the agency asserted that the rescission of these documents “does not change employers’ legal responsibilities” under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, with the agency saying it “will continue to fully and fairly enforce all laws within its jurisdiction.”

The Takeaway

I am not convinced that these withdrawals will matter at all. The Interpretations were drawn from precedent — lots of precedent — on both of these issues. That precedent will not go away. The tenets enunciated in the documents reflect, in my view, the positions that federal courts have been taking for the last several years.

Unless DOL field offices are given specific, explicit guidance from “above” to totally change their view on these issues, which is likely not to happen, field investigators and District Directors in the numerous field offices will continue to apply the principles applicable to these issues in the same, liberal, pro-employee manner which they have been doing for many years now.

So, as Sonny and Cher sang many years ago, “the beat goes on.”

I am a big believer in the importance of USDOL Opinion Letters because they show the thinking of the agency and how it interprets various provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  I often look to the published body of these letters for guidance and I lamented when the DOL (back in 2010) decided to stop issuing these letters.  Well, there seems to be good news around the corner.  The newly nominated Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, has indicated that he is amenable to re-instituting this practice.

He stated that he believes “there’s a value from opinion letters…from the fact that they’re grounded in a specific set of facts, and not in broad legal premises.”  He continued by adding that he sees “no reason why I would not encourage opinion letters.”

The nominee made these comments when responding to a question from Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).  The Congressman referenced a fairly common employer complaint that the agency stopped issuing this kind of specific (or, sometimes, general) guidance when it decided to issue so-called Administrator’s Interpretations, which were essentially major pronouncements on certain issues, such as independent contractor status and joint employer relationships.

writing letter
Copyright: perhapzzz / 123RF Stock Photo

Speaking of which, what is unclear and yet unanswered is whether the new Secretary (if confirmed) would rescind these two “controversial” Interpretations.  Both of these documents were very much pro-employee.  One widened the agency’s definition of joint employer status, making two entities liable for minimum wage and overtime violations.  The independent contractor Interpretation expanded the definition of “employee” to include many more so-called independent contractors.

The Takeaway

I think this would be a great idea.  When individuals or entities write in for opinions, on a particular set of facts, employers throughout the country can take definitive guidance from the factual scenarios presented and apply those lessons to their facts.  That is what employers want—to know how to comply with the law.

Opinion letters help employers do just that.

There have been a number of cases in which the FLSA employee status of exotic dancers has been litigated.  Well, in a very recent one, the plaintiffs’ counsel is strongly attacking the Company’s early summary judgment motion.  The dancers argued they were employees, not independent contractors; the Court has now granted conditional certification to the class.  The case is entitled Shaw et al. v. The Set Enterprises Inc. et al., and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of Florida.

Former dancers Sarah Shaw, Rebecca Wiles and Ashley Howell argued that the amount of control exerted over them by the club owners was the key in deciding what their status should be.  The plaintiffs reeled off many cases in which just such findings were made.  Their papers noted that their “position is not novel; the vast majority of courts to have considered this issue have found exotic dancer/entertainers to be employees as a matter of law.”

Their theory was a willful misclassification had occurred and they were paid only through tips from the customers.  The class was granted conditional certification in December 2016, as the Court found that a sufficient evidentiary showing was made indicating 300 entertainers worked at the two clubs during the three years leading up to the lawsuit and all were similarly situated.

The owners asserted they were independent contractors who just paid a “modest fee” to the club as a licensee, in exchange for being allowed to perform, use the facilities and collect tips and fees from the clientele. They also asserted they exercised no control while they were dancing and performing.

An attorney for the plaintiffs said that notice was being sent to 4,500 prospective class members.  He opined that, in the end, these people would be considered employees under the law, as they have in many other cases.  He said that “there’s been very strong precedent over the last ten years or so, consistently, in nearly all courts, that has found entertainment dancers do qualify as employees. We believe the same will be found under the facts of this case.”

The Takeaway

These cases are very fact-sensitive, but I agree that the majority of them rule that these folks are employees.  This case is interesting in the sense that an ultimate decision on the merits has not been made, but the opt-in notices are being sent to prospective claimants.

This is an interesting case and a (possible) double victory for the employer.  A rarity.  An employer-defendant, Dynamex, Inc. has filed a motion to eliminate more than 30 opt-ins from a conditionally certified collective action under the FLSA seeking back due wages for overtime violations.  On that very day, the employer won the right to access some of the opt-in members’ tax records.  The case is entitled Juan Saravia v. Dynamex Inc. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.

Tax returns
Copyright: lobzik / 123RF Stock Photo

The Company wanted some opt-ins eliminated because they failed to show up for their depositions and others because they withdrew their consent to participate in the suit.  The Company also challenged opt-ins because they were not part of the originally proposed class definition or they did not opt-in on time or they were contracted to work outside of California or were deceased.  The Company urged to the Court that “absent the requested dismissal, this court will be allowing the inclusion of eighteen (18) additional opt-ins at trial in a case where individualized determinations are a necessity and the interest and diligence of the opt-ins is at question.”

The theory of the case is that although the Company labeled the workers as independent contractors, the Company controlled the routes, schedules, customers and other details for thousands of U.S. drivers, which would show too much control, meaning that they were actually statutory employees.  At this time, 155 drivers have opted in.

On that same day, as luck would have it, the Judge ordered 36 collective action members to turn over their federal tax records relevant to their claims from 2008-present when they were contractors for the Company.  The class members had objected on invasion of privacy grounds and that the demand was a pretext for harassment.  The court disagreed, concluding that the plaintiffs’ privacy interests did not supersede the Company’s interest in preparing and advancing a fully formed defense on the merits of the case.

The Court aptly and cogently found that “the tax records that Dynamex seeks will provide probative information indicating the structure of each plaintiff’s businesses, the nature of their income and expenses, and the extent of their gross income, which will be useful in demonstrating whether each of the opt-ins was properly classified as an ‘independent contractor’ or not.”

The Takeaway

This is a great victory, securing the tax returns.  Moreover, and more importantly perhaps, it tilts the momentum of the case in favor of the employer.  Regretfully, most times, the employer is placed in the unenviable position of being reactive and always warding off the next attack by plaintiffs.  Maybe the plaintiffs do not want to open up their tax returns for scrutiny.  Maybe this will cause the plaintiffs to want to settle or be more reasonable in any settlement demands.

I applaud the tactic.  Let it be a signal to other defendant counsel out there.

One thing about FLSA collective actions—right or wrong, win or lose, the legal fees for both sides mount up quickly and almost relentlessly.  I often counsel clients to try to get out early of such a case (especially if I perceive there to be a problem, where there usually is).  Well, the parties in a recently filed collective action have asked a federal judge to stay the proceedings in their case so they could pursue mediation.  The case is entitled Barnett v. EQT Production Co., and was filed in federal court in Western District of Pennsylvania.  This is the correct tactic for the employer.

Oil pump jack and oil tank silhouette
Copyright: crstrbrt / 123RF Stock Photo

The workers claim that they were misclassified as exempt, thereby denying them overtime.  In a joint motion, the parties requested that discovery be stayed and that the action be conditionally certified so that notice could be sent to potential class members.  That notice would allow workers to opt in.  The conditionally certified class would be comprised of any person who performed completions work for the Company but who were treated as independent contractors; such people are not “employees” under the FLSA.  (The mediation is scheduled for October 17).

The named plaintiff alleged that he and other employees on rigs routinely performed non-exempt work in excess of forty per week and were never paid overtime.  To evade this obligation, the plaintiff charges that the Company classified the workers as independent contractors.

The plaintiff charges also that the Company exercised sufficient control to label the workers as “employees” and therefore subject to the FLSA.  They allegedly took direction from the company as well as being managed and supervised by Company supervisors.  They provided regular reports to supervisors; they wore EQT uniforms, attended EQT training/orientation and lived in company-provided housing.  Those are several indicia of control, undermining the defense that the people are true independent contractors.

The Takeaway

This could be bad for the Employer.  By putting all your eggs in the basket of independent contractor status, the battle will be totally lost if the workers are not found to be independent contractors.  This is because if a worker is covered by the FLSA and is non-exempt and if they work beyond forty hours, they must get paid overtime.  End of story.  Then, all there is to quibble about is the number of hours worked and computation issues.

I applaud the action here, especially by the employer.  Get out of it early and save the escalating legal fees (on both sides, as this is a fee-shifting statute).  If there is something to be fixed or ameliorated, then do it.

And move on…

I blogged about this case a few weeks ago and opined that the employer would have an uphill fight.  Maybe they heard me.  The case has now been put in abeyance as the parties seek to work out a settlement.  This initiative follows my thinking in many of these cases—try to get out early and as cheap as you can (especially if, as the employer, you perceive you have exposure).  The case is entitled Werman et al. v. Rotonda Golf Partners LLC and was filed in federal court in the Middle District of Florida.

Golf course
Copyright: happyalex / 123RF Stock Photo

The proposed collective action was based on the theory that employees were forced to work off the clock and were therefore not paid proper overtime.  The lawyers filed a joint motion last week asking for a stay so they could discuss settlement.  The case is now in abeyance until October 7.

The joint motion noted that “the parties respectfully submit that it would be most efficient for the parties to spend their time and limited resources working toward a mutually agreeable settlement rather than responding to the amended complaint, filing a case management report, engaging in discovery and engaging in motion practice relating to, among other things, the overtime exemption asserted by defendants.”

The protocol agreed on will include letters being sent to the employees so they can opt in if they choose.  The defendants then have to provide the payroll records to the plaintiffs’ lawyers so they can “reasonably necessary to determine whether, as plaintiffs allege but which defendants deny, compensation is owed to the opt-in.”

The suit alleges that employees were directed not to punch in when they got to work and to keep working after they punched out.  The employees allege that they received two paychecks that showed only a portion of their hours worked.  They also received part of their monies as “employees” and then received the rest of their pay through a 1099, i.e. as independent contractors.  The workers contend that they were intentionally misclassified so the employers could avoid paying overtime.

The Takeaway

This is a big step forward in resolving this litigation and it will dramatically cut down the litigation fees which the employer would have to spend and avoid inflating the adversary’s fee petition/demand.

It appears to me, as a management side practitioner, that this is the right strategy.  The most crucial thing is to fix what was broken—treating people as W2 employees and 1099 independent contractors in the same work week(s) smacks of deception and an intent to avoid payment of overtime.  Off-the-clock cases are very bothersome, especially when the evidence suggests that there was a focused, management effort to order people to work off-the-clock.

A sand trap, but there is a way out…

No industry or business is immune to FLSA collective actions.  What better proof of this than the fact that a Florida resort and golf course management company were sued in a proposed collective action in federal court.  The theory is that the caddies were really employees, not independent contractors and that the employers deprived the caddies of overtime pay and minimum wages in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act/Florida law.  The case is entitled Stapleton et al. v. Kemper Sports Management Inc. and was filed in federal court in the Middle District of Florida.

Golf course
Copyright: Photozek07 / 123RF Stock Photo

The Complaint alleges that the employer failed to pay the caddies their wages.  This process became the responsibility of the guests and players, who paid minimum rates established by the resort plus tips.  The named plaintiff alleges he and the others worked 1-2 rounds of golf per day, which could take, due to weather and other issues, up to six hours to play.  A two round day meant a work day of twelve hours, according to the plaintiff.  Thus, the worker claimed he typically worked 50-60 hours a week.  Guests paid the caddies $80-100 per bag carried.  The worker claims the caddies were also expected to act as guides for players and maintain the grounds.

The Complaint alleges that Kemper set caddy schedules and assigned them to guests; they also allegedly could be disciplined or fired for not showing up and were compelled to request time off, all characteristics of an employee, not a contractor, according to the Complaint.  Notwithstanding these indicia of employment, the putative employers did not pay any wages to the caddies.

There have, of late, been similar lawsuits based on misclassification in this industry.  For example, groundsmen and other employees filed a suit against Rotonda Golf Partners LLC, alleging that the operators of a handful of golf courses located on Florida’s west coast misclassified workers in order to avoid paying overtime premiums.

The Takeaway

The element of control or, better put, the lack thereof, is the first hurdle in showing that individuals are independent contractors.  From these few initial facts, it appears that the golf course may have exerted (or had the potential to exert) control, i.e. hiring, firing, setting schedules.  The next element, often the toughest one to prove for a putative employer, is to show that the workers are in an independently established business.  Therefore, if these caddies do not work for any other golf course or do not have other indicia of working for themselves (e.g. a website), they will likely not be found to be in their own business.

Could be a big bogey for the defendants…