California Labor and Employment Defense Blog

Finding of Independent Contractor Status for Tax Purposes is Binding for Wage and Hour Purposes -- Happy Nails & Spa v. Su

The legal determination of whether a worker is properly classified as an employee or an independent contractor triggers a variety of legal consequences under various statutes.  These include whether the employer is required to: (a) withhold and pay various federal and state payroll taxes;  and (b) whether the employer must comply with minimum wage, overtime and expense reimbursement under the California Labor Code or federal FLSA.  

These separate legal obligations are enforced by different governmental agencies which may each use slightly different tests for distinguishing between employees and independent contractors.  This could result in multiple prosecutions with different results -- e.g., that the same workers may be contractors for tax purposes but employees for wage payment purposes.  The Fourth District Court of Appeal opinion in Happy Nails & Spa of Fashion Valley L.P. v. Su, addressed this precise scenario. 

In 2004 the California Employment Development Department (the "EDD"), which is charged with collecting unemployment insurance taxes and paying benefits to employees, brought an action claiming that the manicurists at Happy Nails were employees subject to these provisions.  After an administrative trial an administrative law judge decided that they were properly classified as contractors.

In 2008, however, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement ("DLSE"), which is charged with enforcing the California Labor Code and Wage Orders, brought its own action claiming the manicurists were  employees for purposes of the Labor Code. Despite the company's objection that the issue had already been decided the Labor Commissioner decided that Happy Nails was properly "subject to the civil penalties because the cosmetologists are employees, not independent contractors."    

The Appellate Court overturned this second decision however on the ground that it was barred by the result of the 2004 EDD determination.  In particular, the Court explained that different enforcement divisions of the same government are should be deemed to be in "privity" with one another.  Moreover, the independent contractor test used both agencies was essentially the same and, despite the passage of time, there had been no "material" changes in the facts.  Thus,

Giving preclusive effect to the Board's decisions [that the workers were independent contractors] fosters the integrity of both administrative and judicial proceedings. The California Supreme Court has held that “the possibility of inconsistent judgments which may undermine the integrity of the judicial system would be prevented by applying collateral estoppel to the [administrative] decision.”

The rule in Happy Nails will help employers avoid multiple challenges to the classification of their independent contractors.  But it is just as clearly a double-edged sword because an administrative determination that a contractor is misclassified will be equally binding in future actions for unpaid taxes or wages.  

In short, Happy Nails raises the stakes in administrative proceedings involving independent contractor status.           

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