It makes a big difference whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. Employees benefit from the protections of labor, employment, and other valuable statutory protections that do not cover independent contractors.
The breadth of “employee” status has been clarified under developing California law. Last year, the California Supreme Court decided the landmark case Dynamex Operations W. v. Superior Court (2018) 4 Cal.5th 903, about which Bryan Schwartz Law has written previously. This case established the “ABC” test for determining whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, with a presumption that a worker is an employee, i.e., with the burden on putative employers to demonstrate that workers are independent contractors. Id. at 957. To meet this burden, the putative employer must show (a) that the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity, (b) the worker performs work outside the usual scope of the entity’s business, and (c) the worker is engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business. Id. at 964. Failing to demonstrate any one of these elements is sufficient to show an employee-employer relationship. Id. at 964.
But does the Dynamex test apply retroactively to cases arising before it was decided? It does, according to the decision in Vazquez v. Jan-Pro Franchising International, Inc., which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued on May 2, 2019. Workers for international janitorial giant Jan-Pro filed this case in 2008, alleging Jan-Pro implements a business model to misclassify workers as independent contractors and escape the company’s minimum wage and overtime responsibilities. Jan-Pro contracts with franchises of “master owners,” which in turn contracts with “unit franchisees.” Master owners themselves do not clean but instead engage in various managerial or administrative duties; unit franchisees clean. The plaintiffs, janitorial workers at unit franchisees, alleged they were misclassified as independent contractors.
The case had a tortured procedural history with over a decade of litigation, dispositive decisions, and appeals in federal and state courts in California, Georgia, and Massachusetts. In the Ninth Circuit, Jan-Pro argued that a judicial ruling in Georgia had already decided the issue, thereby conclusively resolving the Ninth Circuit case as well under the doctrine of res judicata. Regardless, Jan-Pro argued, the Dynamex decision should not apply retroactively to cases arising before it was decided in 2018.
The Ninth Circuit rejected both arguments. The Court disposed of the res judicata arguments on grounds specific to the procedural history of the litigation. In brief, the Court held that the Massachusetts plaintiff was not in privity with the California plaintiffs, nor did he legally represent their interests—the California plaintiffs could not lose their day in court simply because of a similar case involving someone else on the east coast.
Next the Court addressed the important issue at stake for California workers: whether the Dynamex decision applied retroactively. The answer was a resounding “yes.” California’s judicial decisions traditionally apply retroactively, even when overruling past precedent. The Court adhered to this traditional rule, drawing further support from other California courts’ retroactive application of the Dynamex decision and the California Supreme Court’s summary denial of a petition to modify Dynamex to clarify that it was prospective only. Notably, despite its considerable impact on the lives of workers and employment law practice, the Dynamex decision did not create new law but instead hewed close to the fundamental purpose of existing California law. Because the lower court had dismissed the workers’ claims on summary judgment before Dynamex was decided, the Ninth Circuit remanded the case for a decision in light of Dynamex.
If you believe you are misclassified as an independent contractor and should enjoy the same rights as an employee, contact Bryan Schwartz Law.