Ninth Circuit Holds That Contracts Expressly Acknowledging Independent Contractor Status “Simply Not Significant” Under California’s Test of Employment”

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In Narayan v. EGL, Inc., — F.3d —-, 2010 WL 2735708 (9th Cir. July 13, 2010), the Ninth Circuit decided whether, assuming the existence of an employer-employee relationship in California, the employer may avoid its obligations under the Labor Code by inserting a clause in an employer-drafted pre-printed form contract in which: (1) the employee acknowledges that he is an independent contractor and (2) agrees that the contract would be interpreted in accordance with the laws of another jurisdiction where such an agreement is generally enforceable.  Judge Ronald M. Whyte of the Northern District of California found that declarations in the underlying agreements stating that the drivers were independent contractors rather than employees compelled the holding that the plaintiffs were indeed independent contractors as a matter of law.  Id. at *2.  Consequently, the district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.  The Ninth Circuit reversed.

EGL, the employer, is a global transportation, supply chain management and information services company incorporated under the laws of Texas and headquartered in Texas.  EGL’s services include, inter alia, “air and ocean freight forwarding, customs brokerage, [and] local pickup and delivery service.” Plaintiff drivers (the “Drivers”) were residents of California who were engaged to provide freight pick-up and delivery services for EGL in California. All three Drivers signed agreements with EGL for “Leased Equipment and Independent Contractor Services” (the “Agreements”). The Agreements provided that the “intention of the parties is to … create a vendor/vendee relationship between Contractor and [EGL],” and acknowledged that “[n]either Contractor nor any of its employees or agents shall be considered to be employees of” EGL. The terms of the Agreements provide, inter alia, that the Drivers “shall exercise independent discretion and judgment to determine the method, manner and means of performance of its contractual obligations,” although EGL retained the right to “issue reasonable and lawful instructions regarding the results to be accomplished.”  Id. at *1.

The Ninth Circuit noted the difficultly in overcoming the  Drivers’  prima facie case that the relationship was one of employer/employee. “This hurdle is particularly difficult for EGL to overcome in light of the second special consideration in this case, namely, the multi-faceted test that applies in resolving the issue whether the Drivers are employees.”  Id. at *4.

The Ninth Circuit described the multifactor approach to evaluating the:

indicia of an employment relationship, the most important of which is the “right to discharge at will, without cause.” Borello, 256 Cal.Rptr. 543, 769 P.2d at 404 (quoting Tieberg v. Unemployment Ins.App. Bd., 2 Cal.3d 943, 88 Cal.Rptr. 175, 471 P.2d 975, 979 (Cal.1970)). Borello endorsed other factors derived from the Restatement (Second) of Agency that may point to an employment relationship:  (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.

Id. at *4.

The Court concluded that the “fact that the Drivers here had contracts ‘expressly acknowledging that they were independent contractors’ is simply not significant under California’s test of employment.” Id. at *8 (citing Borello, 256 Cal. Rptr. 543, 769 P.2d at 403 (“The label placed by the parties on their relationship is not dispositive, and subterfuges are not countenanced.”)).

The Court evaluated the various indicia of employment and concluded that:

Ultimately, under California’s multi-faceted test of employment, there existed at the very least sufficient indicia of an employment relationship between the plaintiff Drivers and EGL such that a reasonable jury could find the existence of such a relationship. Indeed, although it plays no role in our decision to deny summary judgment, it is not without significance that, applying comparable factors to those that we apply here, the Internal Revenue Service (at EGL’s request) and the Employment Development Department of California (at Narayan’s request) have determined that Narayan was an employee for federal tax purposes (applying federal law) and California Unemployment or Disability Insurance (applying California law), respectively.

Id. at *8.

UPDATE:

On August 5, 2010, the Ninth Circuit amended its holding, highlighted above.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

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