Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ninth Circuit Rejects FedEx Effort to Portray Drivers as Independent Contractors

Today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held, under California law, that FedEx drivers are employees, not independent contractors. As a result, Fed Ex, which had required the 2300 California drivers included in the case to pay for their own trucks, equipment and expenses, and work 9.5 to 11 hour days, is liable for violating the Labor Code. The case is Alexander v. FedEx, 12-17458, __F.3d__ (9th Cir. Aug. 27, 2014).

The contract that the FedEx drivers were required to sign appears to have been drafted in an effort to persuade a reviewing court that the drivers are independent contractors – it refers to the drivers as “contractors,” and says that no FedEx officer or employee would “have the authority to direct [the driver] as to the manner or means employed … [or] have the authority to prescribe hours of work … or other details of performance.” The problem for FedEx, however, was that, in the contract and elsewhere, FedEx did tell the drivers in great detail how, when and where to do their work. As Judge Trott wrote in his concurring opinion, in a quote (reportedly) attributable to Abraham Lincoln: “If you call a dog’s leg a tail, how many legs does a dog have? …. Four. Calling a dog’s tail a leg does not make it a leg.”

In applying the principal factor of California’s “right-to-control” test, the Ninth Circuit observed that FedEx’s detailed control over drivers included: control over the appearance of the drivers, from their mandatory uniforms to the color of their shoes and socks and the appearance of their hair; the specific shade of white paint to be used on their trucks, the mandatory use of FedEx logos on trucks, mandatory truck dimensions, and interior shelves in the truck of particular materials and dimensions; and the structuring of work-loads such that drivers had to work 9.5 to 11 hours per day, with requirements that they not leave the FedEx terminal in the morning until all of their packages were available, and return to the terminals no later than a specified time.

FedEx argued that drivers had some flexibility in the order in which they made their deliveries, and that they were permitted to be “entrepreneurial” by hiring helpers to allow them to handle multiple routes, but the Court, observing that FedEx maintained close control over the assignment of work and the right to reject proposed helpers, concluded that even if drivers had control over some aspects of the job, FedEx maintained “all necessary control.” Other relevant factors included the fact that the drivers worked for FedEx under long (one- to three-year contracts), which suggested that they were really employees, and that they were assisting the Company by carrying out its core business function – the delivery of packages.

The case was procedurally interesting in that it was filed in California but then consolidated into multi-district litigation in the District Court for Northern District of Indiana. The Indiana court, applying California law, granted summary judgment to FedEx. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals not only disagreed that FedEx was entitled to summary judgment, but held that the drivers were entitled to summary judgment.

The case stands for the proposition that if an employer’s workforce is doing the work of employees, the employer cannot avoid complying with the Labor Code’s employee protections by artful contract language: calling a dog’s tail a leg does not mean a dog has five legs.

The Court’s order is available here. If you have questions about your employment rights or about class actions seeking wages, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law.

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