Of Employees and Independent Contractors: The Ninth Circuit to Consider Where Truck Drivers Fall
March 8, 2017 | By: Harris S. Freier, Esq.
On February 24, 2017, Senior U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick in the district of Arizona stayed a proposed class action in Virginia Van Dusen et al v. Swift Transportation Co., Inc. et al, No.: 2:10-cv-00899, against Swift Transportation Co., Inc. (“Swift Transportation”). The proposed class is comprised of about 600 members but could have implications for thousands of drivers for the company. This long-running case centers around claims that the trucking company incorrectly classifies its drivers as independent contractors. February’s ruling prevents any advancement until the Ninth Circuit hears the company’s challenge to the district court’s January 2017 ruling that its drivers’ contractor agreements were actually contracts of employment.
In the initial complaint, plaintiffs alleged that Swift Transportation incorrectly classified them as independent contractors as opposed to employees and failed to pay them proper wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and under various provisions of the New York Labor Law and the California Labor Code. Plaintiffs sought relief from the court, requesting it enter an order declaring that Swift Transportation violated the FLSA, certifying the class, and awarding damages for unpaid wages, reimbursement for illegal deductions from wages, and an equal amount in liquidated damages and interest as well as attorneys’ fees. Illegal deductions, such as fuel costs, maintenance and repairs, and insurance, can be substantial in a trucking case, which makes trucking companies popular targets of class actions.
According to documents initially submitted to the court, twenty-five percent of Swift Transportation’s drivers worked in the company’s “owner operator division” and were considered independent contractors. Three-quarters of the trucks were driven by employees. The plaintiffs maintained that a majority of the “owner operators” did not own anything at all, but were instead selected by Swift to lease trucks from an affiliated company. They further argued that they should be considered employees because much of their day-to-day operations were within Swift Transportation’s control and oversight.
In determining whether the contractor agreements were exempt from arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) and the Arizona Arbitration Act (“AAA”), the court noted that § 1 of the FAA excludes “contracts of employment”. In assessing whether the Swift Transportation’s contractor agreements were exempt from the FAA, the federal district court looked to the four corners of the agreements. The agreements specified the type of work performed by the drivers, clearly showing that Swift Transportation’s “central mission” is delivering freight to customers across the country. The district court noted that the fact that its employees were doing the work of transporting on the company’s behalf suggested an employment relationship. Swift Transportation maintained, however, that the drivers were giving substantial autonomy and were free to do as much or as little as they wanted in order to profit as an independent driver. Other factors contained within the agreements bolstered the employment relationship, according to the court, including provisions regarding Swift’s control of its drivers’ schedules, load-determination and assignment, and per-mile rates paid to drivers. Moreover, these agreements were automatically extended on a year-to-year basis, a feature of employee status where the relationship is of possibly infinite duration. Thus, the court found that, within the four corners of the agreements, the contracts were those of employment and were exempt from arbitration under both the FAA and the AAA.
The federal district court also looked to other evidence to determine whether the independent drivers were employees. It noted that the plaintiffs had limited autonomy when it came to load assignments and payment structures. The fact that the plaintiffs were paid on a per-mile basis as opposed to time spent at work did not, in the court’s view, make the compensation project-based. Also, Plaintiffs were not paid after completion of a specific job but rather received settlement payments on a weekly basis similar to the regular paydays of Swift Transportation’s employee drivers. Even though Swift Transportation argued that plaintiffs were free to do as much or as few miles for the company as needed to profit as an independent driver, the combination of agreements and leases dictated a minimum amount plaintiffs needed to drive in order to pay for weekly rentals of leased trucks. As a result, the amount independent drivers had to drive for the company was the same as the employee drivers. It was also impractical for plaintiffs to “moonlight” or to turn down cargo loads in hopes of larger ones as there was no guarantee there would be one, which undermined the alleged freedom available to the independent drivers.
The lower court’s review of the agreements and of the additional factors is in line with the approach taken by the Ninth Circuit generally. In 2014, the Ninth Circuit held that the most important factor in determining a worker’s status is the amount of control exercised by the putative employer over the worker’s position. However, the Ninth Circuit also reviews the “totality of the circumstances,” similar to the test used by the U.S. Department of Labor when evaluating independent contractor status under the FLSA.
What is troubling for companies operating in multiple states is there is no complete consistency amongst the circuits as to how to assess the issue of employee versus independent contractor status. Even within the circuits themselves different tests are often used depending on from which state the case originated. Within Third Circuit, for example, there are several approaches. New Jersey expressly rejects the common law right to control test and instead courts apply the ABC test under N.J.S.A. 43:21-19(i)(6)(A)-(C):
- Such individual has been and will continue to be free from control or direction over the performance of such service, both under his contract of service and in fact; and
- Such service is either outside the usual course of the business for which such service is performed, or that such service is performed outside of all the places of business of the enterprise for which such service is performed; and
- Such individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business.
Delaware, on the other hand, uses the common law right to control test and courts focus on the amount of control “retained or exercised by the owner.” Delaware courts also look to the element of continuous subjection to the will of the principal, which is a defining factor in the worker-owner relationship.
In Pennsylvania, courts look to the common law factors which mirror those considered in the four corners assessment by the Ninth Circuit: control of manner work is to be done; responsibility for result only; terms of agreement between the parties; the nature of the work or occupation; skill required for performance; whether one employed is engaged in a distinct occupation or business; which party supplies the tools; whether payment is by time or by the job; whether the work is part of the regular business of the employer, and also the right to terminate the employment at any time.
While the Swift Transportation case will be instructive in determining whether truckers can be treated as independent contractors as opposed to employees, the lack of consistency among the circuits means that independent truckers will continue to be subject to challenge. Employers, therefore, need to be very careful in classifying their drivers as independent contractors, especially if their job duties and responsibilities are not materially different from those of its employee-drivers and if company maintains control over how the drivers perform their work.
For questions about independent contractors or trucking and logistics, please contact John Vreeland, Esq., Chair of the Transportation, Trucking & Logistics Group and a Partner in the Labor Law Practice Group at email@example.com or (973) 535-7118, or, Harris S. Freier, Esq., a Partner in the Firm’s Employment Law and Appellate Practice Groups, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 533-0777. Please also sign-up our free Labor & Employment Blog at www.labor-law-blog.com to keep up-to-date on the latest news and legal developments effecting your workforce.
Tags: Trucking • Genova Burns • Federal Arbitration Act • Ninth Circuit • Genova Burns LLC • John Petrella • Amanda Frankel • Harris Freier • Swift Trucking • Class Action • Virginia Van Dusen et al v. Swift Transportation Co. • Inc. et al • FAA • Arizona Arbitration Act • AAA