Court holds independent contractor status of cab drivers not suitable for class action.

USA Cab owns a fleet of about 45 taxis that it leases to drivers, and it operates a taxi dispatch service. At issue in the case was whether USA Cab’s classification of the drivers as independent contractors was proper. The Plaintiffs’ brought a putative class action alleging that due to the misclassification, USA Cab failed to provide workers’ compensation insurance, failed to pay minimum wages, improperly required drivers to pay security deposits and other fees, and denied them meal and rest breaks.

Under the terms of the agreement with the drivers, USA Cab provided the lessee-drivers with a taxi "painted with [its] insignia and equipped with meter, radio, and any other equipment as required by state law and local ordinances relating to taxicabs.” The company also paid for all licenses, taxes and fees assessed on the taxi, and to furnish liability insurance, oil, tires, and maintenance, except that required by the lessee's misuse or abuse of the taxi. The company also allowed the lessee to select from specified daily, weekly or monthly lease rates depending on his or her driving record.

USA Cab argued the purported class would be unmanageable, and common questions do not predominate over individual issues, given differences among the driver-lessees' situations.

The court noted, that while the merits of the case are not determined at the class certification stage, the facts and defenses pertinent to the merits of the case are taken into consideration to determine whether class certification is appropriate. With regards to the test of which workers can be classified as independent contractors, the court noted:

While the right to control work details is the most important factor, there are also " 'secondary' indicia of the nature of a service arrangement." [citation] The secondary factors are principally derived from the Restatement Second of Agency, and include "(a) whether the one performing services is engaged in a distinct occupation or business; (b) the kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the principal or by a specialist without supervision; (c) the skill required in the particular occupation; (d) whether the principal or the worker supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place of work for the person doing the work; (e) the length of time for which the services are to be performed; (f) the method of payment, whether by the time or by the job; (g) whether or not the work is a part of the regular business of the principal; and (h) whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relationship of employer-employee." [citation] "Generally, the individual factors cannot be applied mechanically as separate tests; they are intertwined and their weight depends often on particular combinations." [citation]

The court provides an excellent overview of California law regarding which workers can be classified as independent contractors.  The opinion is well worth the read for anyone dealing with this issue in California. 

In this case, USA Cab submitted a number of declarations from primarily current drivers to oppose Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification. The court noted that the declarations tended to show that the case was not proper for class certification because the they tended to show that individualized issues predominated the case:

  • The declarations tended to show a lack of class-wide damage. For instance, most declarants said they incurred no work-related injuries, customarily took meal and rest breaks, and earned wages equaling or exceeding minimum wage.
  • The declarations established that the drivers were not required to use USA Cab's dispatch service. Some drivers used it for between 20 and 60 percent of their business, many used it infrequently, and some chose not to use it at all.
  • The declarations also showed that drivers paid for their own tools, such as map books, flashlights, tool kits, jumper cables, cell phones, computers, GPS navigational systems, and credit card machines.
  • Some of the drivers also established that they conducted their own marketing and advertising to gain new customers.
  • The drivers also declared that “with varying frequency they chose to set their own rates, such as flat rates for trips, or rates below the standard metered rate.”

Based on these facts, the trial court ruled, and the appellate court agreed, that this case was not suitable for class treatment. The opinion, Ali v. USA Cab Ltd., can be downloaded here (Word).
 

New Appellate Case Upholds Independent Contractor Status

Appellant Al Varisco sued Gateway Science and Engineering for wrongful termination of employment and similar causes of action. In order to sue under these legal theories, Varisco had to establish that he was an employee, not an independent contractor as Gateway contended.

The trial court agreed with Gateway that Varisco was an independent contractor, and the appellate court affirmed this ruling. In its ruling, the appellate court provided a great analysis for employers who face the issue of whether their independent contractors are properly classified. The court began its analysis with the following:

Control is the principal factor in determining whether an individual worker is an employee or an independent contractor. "An independent contractor is 'one who renders service in the course of an independent employment or occupation, following his employer's desires only in the results of the work, and not the means whereby it is to be accomplished.' [Citations.] On the other hand, the relationship of master and servant or employer and employee exists whenever the employer retains the right to direct how the work shall be done as well as the result to be accomplished. [Citations.] But this rule requires that the right to exercise complete or authoritative control, rather than mere suggestion as to detail, must be shown. [Citations.] Also, the right to control, rather than the amount of control which was exercised, is the determinative factor." (S. A. Gerrard Co. v. Industrial Acc. Com. (1941) 17 Cal.2d 411, 413.)

Thus, the most significant question in the independent contractor/employee determination is "'whether the person to whom service is rendered has the right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired.' [Citation.]" (S. G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations (1989) 48 Cal.3d 341, 350.)

The appellate court continued to explain that there are “secondary indicia” of whether someone is an independent contractor. These factors are:

  1. whether the one performing services is engaged in a distinct occupation or business;
  2. the kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the principal or by a specialist without supervision;
  3. the skill required in the particular occupation;
  4. whether the principal or the worker supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place of work for the person doing the work;
  5. the length of time for which the services are to be performed;
  6. (the method of payment, whether by the time or by the job;
  7. whether or not the work is a part of the regular business of the principal; and
  8. whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relationship of employer-employee. (citing Borello, 48 Cal.3d at p. 351.)

Base on these factors, the appellate court held that Varisco was an independent contractor. He received a 1099 for all his compensation from Gateway. Gateway did not provide any uniform, apparel, equipment, material, or tools to him. Varisco wore his own hardhat and work boots, mandatory apparel on the job site, and he testified that he provided his own equipment. He used his own car for transportation to and from the job site, and was not reimbursed for mileage or gas. Varisco was responsible for his own training, and did not receive any training from Gateway. His work hours were not set by Gateway, he only went to Gateway’s office twice a month to pick up his paychecks. Gateway did not have personnel at the LAUSD job sites. When issues or questions arose at the job site, he addressed them to the LAUSD architect, not Gateway. When asked "did Gateway give you any direction on how to perform your duties?" Varisco answered "no."

Varisco argued that because he was paid on an hourly basis, he should be considered an employee. Not persuaded by this argument, the court stated, “[a]n hourly rate traditionally indicated an employment relationship [citation] but independent contractors are now commonly paid on that basis. [citation].”

Finally, Varisco argued that he had an agreement with Gateway that provided the relationship was “at-will”, which supports his argument that he was an employee, not an independent contractor. The court, again, disagreed:

An independent contractor agreement can properly include an at-will clause giving the parties the right to terminate the agreement. Such a clause does not, in and of itself, change the independent contractor relationship into an employee-employer relationship. If it did, independent contractor arrangements could only be established through agreements which limited the right of a party, or perhaps both parties, to terminate the agreement. This would be absurd, and it is not the law.

Employers with independent contractors should take a look at the case for some guidance about whether their independent contractors are properly classified. The case, Varisco v. Gateway Science & Engin. can be downloaded as a PDF or in Word.
 

Independent Contractors - Approach With Caution

FedEx is still litigating its classification of its drivers as independent contractors. FedEx lost a case recently in California in Los Angeles and the court ruled the company owes 200 drivers $5.3 million in expenses.  In addition, the California Employment Development Department (EDD), which is responsible for collecting payroll taxes, assessed FedEx Ground owed more than $7.88 million in back payroll taxes because it also held the drivers were misclassified as independent contractors. The audit covered the period July 2001 to June 2004 and concluded that some of the drivers were properly classified as independent contractors, but found the “single-route” drivers were employees. 

As these cases illustrate, California employers need to approach the independent contractor classification very carefully.  If a worker is properly classified as an independent contractor it can save the company money and give the workers great flexibility.  However, misclassifying employees as independent contractors exposes the company large damages for unreimbursed expenses, unpaid overtime, back payroll taxes, and many other items.

For guidance on whether employers have properly classified its workers as independent contractors, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) provides an explanation of the “economic realities” test. The DLSE maintains that the most indicative fact determinative of whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor depends on whether the person to whom service is rendered (the employer or principal) has control or the right to control the worker both as to the work done and the manner and means in which it is performed. The DLSE also sets forth the other factors that are considered when determining an employee’s status:

  1. Whether the person performing services is engaged in an occupation or business distinct from that of the principal;
  2. Whether or not the work is a part of the regular business of the principal or alleged employer;
  3. Whether the principal or the worker supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place for the person doing the work;
  4. The alleged employee’s investment in the equipment or materials required by his or her task or his or her employment of helpers;
  5. Whether the service rendered requires a special skill;
  6. The kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the principal or by a specialist without supervision;
  7. The alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending on his or her managerial skill;
  8. The length of time for which the services are to be performed;
  9. The degree of permanence of the working relationship;
  10. The method of payment, whether by time or by the job; and
  11. Whether or not the parties believe they are creating an employer-employee relationship may have some bearing on the question, but is not determinative since this is a question of law based on objective tests.

Further details about the DLSE’s position on who classifies as an independent contractor can be found here. The DLSE’s information provides a great starting point for employers to audit their classifications of employees, but each case may present different facts, and the economic realities test may change depending on the jurisdiction (i.e., civil court or an EDD assessment) and whether state or federal law is at issue.