East Bay Taxi Drivers Association v. Friendly Cab Co., -- Taxi Drivers Found to be Employees, Not Independent Contractors

The Ninth Circuit’s decision earlier this year in East Bay Taxi Driver’s Association v. Friendly Cab, Inc., 512 F3d 1090 (2008), illustrates how easily courts will pierce through the outward appearances of a “business” contract to find that, at bottom, it is just a glorified employer-employee relationship.

The case involved taxi drivers who were seeking to form a union to bargain with the company that leased their cabs. As employees they would be covered by the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) and could force the company to recognize their union and bargain collectively. This required the Court to detrmine their true status.  As the Court explained:


‘Employees' work for wages or salaries under direct supervision. ‘Independent contractors' undertake to do a job for a price, decide how the work will be done, usually hire others to do the work, and depend for their income not upon wages, but upon the difference between what they pay for goods, materials, and labor and what they receive for the end result, that is, upon profits.

The drivers leased their vehicles and kept the fares that they generated. Nevertheless, the Ninth Circuit upheld the NLRB’s determination that they were mere “employees.” The main reason for this outcome was the company’s tight control over the drivers’ operations. For example, the drivers were required to only respond to the company’s radio dispatches and could not pick up fares on their own or advertise their own services apart from the company. The company's high degree of control thus negated the drivers’ opportunity to generate any real “entrepreneurial profit” through their own initiative.  


We have blogged repeatedly about the difficulty of maintaining a proper independent contractor status.  Unfortunately, the various multifactor tests promulgated by courts and administrative agencies are remarkably unhelpful for predicting which side of the line a worker falls. As the outcome of the East Bay Taxi case illustrates, however, it is probably more useful to view the standard as a simple determination of whether the company’s control prevents the individual from making significant profit from his own business decisions.

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