Independent Contractor

I have done a lot of independent contractor work in New Jersey, defended many such cases, from (numerous) unemployment audits to FLSA class actions. The New Jersey test, the A-B-C test, is well-established and one of the hardest for the putative employer to prevail upon. The test was, just a few years ago, reinforced by the NJ Supreme Court. Now, Governor. Phil Murphy has signed an Executive Order creating a task force to look into this issue of employee misclassification, as the Governor opines that millions and millions of dollars in taxes are being lost because of this practice. My question is—why do it?

New Jersey Silhouette in OrangeThe Task Force on Employee Misclassification will make recommendations on strategies the state will use to deal with the arguably widespread misclassification of employees as independent contractors. The Task Force will look at existing enforcement practices in and will seek to set out best practices to strengthen enforcement in this area, as well as making education outreach.

The Executive Order states that “with some audits suggesting that misclassification deprives New Jersey of over $500 million in tax revenue every year.” The Order is a product of a NJDOL report issued during the transition that contained a section on misclassifying workers. The report referenced a fairly new NJ Supreme Court case on misclassification and USDOL guidance which had “clarified the factors to be examined in determining a worker’s status.” The Report cited some benefits (UI insurance, family leave) that employees receive and independent contractors do not.

The NJDOL audits, in supposedly random fashion, approximately 2% of employers to gauge if these employers are correctly reporting all employees for unemployment and disability insurance purposes. I have handled perhaps fifty (50) such audits and can safely say that the tendency of the agency is to find that most individuals are, in fact, employees.

Under the IRS test, many factors are looked at, with a seeming emphasis on the control factors. Under the New Jersey A-B-C test, the most important factor is whether the individual is in an “independently established business.” This third factor is where, nine of ten times, the putative employer’s defense goes south. However, there has been a recent judicial development (the Garden State Fireworks decision) that might swing the pendulum a little back towards the middle.

The Takeaway

One commentator has said that the classification “disease” affects all industries but asserted that the problem is pervasive in the construction, trucking and landscaping spheres. That may be so but I know that the state of enforcement by the NJDOL is already fairly aggressive and I do not understand the point of the task force being created. If it is to advise that there is “a lot” of misclassification, well, we already know that. Maybe the Task Force will recommend stronger and more aggressive enforcement of the existing laws.

From my vantage point, I thought the agency was already doing that…

Employers are always trying to cut off the head of a class action, i.e. the named plaintiff, in order to bring the case to an end. What happens when the named plaintiff is gone from the case but some people have opted in? Do they become named plaintiffs, with the case continuing?  The Eleventh Circuit has seemingly answered that question in the affirmative. The court has just ruled that workers who opt into collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act only have to file that little piece of paper, the consent form, to then become a named party to the case,  The case is entitled Mickles et al. v. Country Club Inc.

The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia, now home to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
By Eoghanacht [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Importantly, the ruling is a published one, meaning it is precedential. The panel reversed the lower court which held that the three opt-ins were not properly added to the case and should have been eliminated from the suit after the original plaintiff did not succeed in securing conditional certification and then settled. The Judge who wrote the decision stated that this was a case of first impression.

The Court noted that the FLSA, on its face, buttressed the conclusion that workers who opt into a collective “become party plaintiffs upon the filing of a consent and that nothing further, including conditional certification, is required.” The Court stated that “we conclude that filing a written consent pursuant to [FLSA] section 216(b) is sufficient to confer party-plaintiff status.”

The case was filed in 2014 by a single named plaintiff Andrea Mickles, a dancer at Goldrush. The suit alleged that the company (Country Club Inc.) had misclassified her and other dancers as independent contractors and thus they were denied proper minimum wages and overtime monies. She sought a class of current and former dancers; three other dancers then opted in by filing consents.

The lower court denied the motion to conditionally certify the class, as it was filed beyond the deadline set forth in local court rules for such a motion. There was no mention, however, of what would happen to the three opt-in plaintiffs. The Company then asked the court to specify which individuals would stay in the case. The company claimed the opt-ins had never become named party plaintiffs and thus were eliminated from the case when the conditional certification motion was denied.

The three additional workers claimed they could not be dropped from the case because the conditional certification motion was denied. The lower court held that the three had not been ruled similarly situated to the original plaintiff and had not been joined to the collective action. Then, the original plaintiff settled with the company and the three opt-ins appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

That appellate court noted that there was no determination made as to the “similarly situated” element for the three workers, as needed to be done. Although opt-ins must be similarly situated to the original plaintiff, as no ruling on this issue had been made, the three employees stayed as parties until that ruling was made; if they were not ruled to be similarly situated, then they would be dismissed from the case.

The Eleventh Circuit therefore ordered that the opt-in cases be dismissed without prejudice so they were free to refile their claims, or proceed with their own suits. The court stated that “the “appellants were parties to the litigation upon filing consents and, absent a dismissal from the case, remained parties in the litigation, Thus, the district court erred in deeming appellants non-parties in the clarification order, which had the effect of dismissing their claims with prejudice.”

The Takeaway

This is a major change in the FLSA litigation landscape and makes it harder for an employer to get a case dismissed or to even settle a case. Yes, it is only one circuit, but the reasoning and rationale may spread to other circuits.

I hope not…

Classification issues are annoying ones, to state the obvious. Especially decisions and issues as to who is and who is not an independent contractor. And, it does not matter whether the defending entity is a mom-and-pop candy store or one of our most elite educational institutions, such as Harvard University. That august institution has just recently agreed to revise its university-wide worker classification system as part of a settlement of a class action involving allegations of misclassification. The case is entitled Donahue v. Harvard University and was filed in state court in Massachusetts.

A massage therapist treating a female client on a table in an apartmentThe settlement included a class of approximately 20 acupuncturists and massage therapists who worked at the University’s Center for Wellness from January 2013 to December 2017. These workers will now be re-classified as employees and receive up to $30,000 each in back pay. When the University re-classifies other workers, the side “benefit” will be that they will be eligible to join unions.

The plaintiff’s attorney complimented the university. She stated, “from the outset of this case, I have said that Harvard should be a role model for other employers. I am very proud of this settlement and hope that it sets an example of how other employers should respond when a concern is raised that its workers have been misclassified.”

The named plaintiff, Kara Donohoe, a massage therapist, sued the University in January 2016, alleging it misclassified her and others as independent contractors. They were, consequently, denied certain employee-related benefits. She will receive $30,000 in back pay and an extra $30,000 for being the named plaintiff, a so-called “incentive award.” Other workers will receive up to $30,000 in back pay. Harvard has now tasked a group of people (e.g. HR) with revising its policies concerning classification of individuals as independent contractors. This study will be guided by federal and state law principles.

The Takeaway

A wholesale classification of any group of individuals as independent contractors is dangerous. As I have harped on many times, the starting point for any such analysis, whether under FLSA principles or state law, any state’s law, is to ascertain if the individual has other customers or clients or works solely/mostly for the putative employer.  In this case, if these Therapists worked only for Harvard, they were not engaged in an “independently established business” and that is the death knell for any employer defense in an independent contractor case.

Sorry, but, on this one, Harvard gets an “F.”

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.