Dynamex Operations West Inc. v. Superior Court

It’s been nearly six months since the California Supreme Court announced that employers and government agencies were using the wrong test to determine who’s an independent contractor. In Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court, the court declared that employers must meet the three-prong ABC test to overcome the presumption of employment status. But Dynamex left a number of questions unanswered. A decision filed this week,  Garcia v. Border Transportation Group, LLC, takes a tentative initial step to address those open questions.

There, the trial court granted summary judgment for the employer on the basis that Garcia was an independent contractor. Some of those claims (but not all) were based on the IWC Wage Orders, which guarantee employees a minimum wage, maximum hours, overtime compensation, meal and rest breaks, and more. The employee appealed and, while the appeal was pending, the CA Supreme Court issued its opinion in Dynamex.

Since the employer could not show that the plaintiff had an independently established business (part C of the ABC test), the court of appeal reversed the summary judgment on the claims based on the Wage Orders. These included claims for unpaid wages, minimum wage violations, failure to provide meal and rest periods, failure to furnish itemized wage statements, and a claim that the foregoing constituted unfair competition.

The court upheld summary judgment on claims for wrongful termination, waiting time penalties, and an unfair competition claim based on those violations. The court reasoned that, while Dynamex applied to claims based on the Wage Orders, the test for the remaining claims still involved the extent of control the employer exercised over the worker.

In a footnote, the court also questioned whether the Dynamex decision applies retroactively. The parties had not raised the issue and the court therefore said it would not address it. But in declining to address it, the court noted: (1) the general rule that judicial decisions have retroactive effect; (2) that there could be exceptions where the parties reasonably relied on the previously existing law; (3) that the Dynamex court declined a request to apply its ruling only prospectively; and (4) that Dynamex came as no greater surprise than a number of decisions that routinely apply retroactively. That’s quite a bit for an issue the court said it would not address.

While this decision doesn’t hold out much hope for Dynamex not applying retroactively, it at least says that it may be an open question. The greater value for employers comes in the decision’s reinforcement that (at least in this appellate court on this day), Dynamex is limited to claims under the Wage Orders. As to when we’ll have greater clarity on those issues, that remains to be seen.

It is that time of year.  We continue to wait for the Governor to sign or veto some controversial bills such as:

  • The Stand Act (prohibiting confidentiality in harassment and sexual assault settlements); and
  • AB 3080 (prohibiting mandatory arbitration for new and current employees, but presumably allowing arbitration with an opt out, and prohibiting nondisclosure of harassment issues to protect future employees going forward).

As we wait, there was one bill recently passed that clarifies a few things about California’s salary history ban that is worthy of a quick mention.

As you may recall, effective this year, employers were prohibited from asking an applicant about his/her salary history.  Employers are also required to provide pay scale information to an applicant on the position applied for upon reasonable request.  Recently, some of those terms have been clarified, as follows:

  1. First, an applicant is now defined as an individual seeking employment who is not currently employed with that employer in any capacity or position.  So current employees are not entitled to pay scale information.
  2. Second, a reasonable request, is now defined as a request made after an applicant has completed an initial interview with the employer.  This would prevent someone not qualified for a position from obtaining salary range information about it.
  3. Third, pay scale is defined as a salary or hourly wage range for the position.  Not quite sure what the confusion was there.
  4. Fourth, as most of us already surmised, it is perfectly acceptable to ask an applicant about his/her salary expectations.
  5. And finally, while prior salary cannot justify any disparity in compensation, an employer can consider current salary as a factor to justify a wage differential as long as it is based on:
    • A seniority system;
    • A merit system;
    • A system that measures quality or quantity of production; or
    • A bona fide factor other than sex, race or ethnicity (such as education, training, or experience).

Now if only the legislature would take up some very serious issues facing employers, especially after Dyanmex (and the resulting war against contractor status), such as my personal favorite idea, to create a new category of workers called “dependent contractors”.  Maybe next term.  One can always hope.

Employers are still reeling from last week’s decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court, in which the California Supreme Court said that employers (and even a state agency that protects workers) were using the wrong standard to distinguish employees and independent contractors under the state’s Wage Orders. A month before that, in Alvarado v. Dart Container Corporation of Californiathe same court announced a more employee-friendly way of calculating overtime for employees who receive bonuses.

These cases share two things. First, they put big smiles on the faces of lawyers who file wage and hour class actions. Second, both cases premised their decisions in part on California’s goal of protecting workers. In Dynamex, the court relied on the “general principle that wage orders are the type of remedial legislation that must be liberally construed in a manner that serves its remedial purposes.” The court in Alvarado noted that one of the “overarching interpretive principles” to guide its analysis was that “the state’s labor laws are to be liberally construed in favor of worker protection.” No mention was made of the fact that California workers have more far-reaching protections than workers in any other state.

While Dynamex and Alvarado provide examples from the last 45 days, the courts have been interpreting employee protections liberally for many decades. During that time, workers’ rights keep expanding further and further. I am certainly not suggesting that workers should not be protected from unscrupulous employers. But does anyone pay attention to the principle that employers who make every effort to follow the law shouldn’t be subjected to potentially ruinous litigation exposure each time the courts reinterpret the law in a new direction?

Determining whether a California worker is an independent contractor or an employee has always been difficult. Judges deciding the issue have complained that the test used by California courts “provides nothing remotely close to a clear answer.” Then there was the nail salon that was told by one state agency that its workers were employees and by another that they were independent contractors. So there’s no question that the law in this area has been messy.

On Monday, it got considerably messier. That’s when the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court. For years — even decades — judges, government agencies, and lawyers have interpreted the law to say that the key to distinguishing between employees and independent contractors was whether the company had the right to control the manner and means by which the worker accomplished the desired result. So if drivers for a gig-economy car service decided what days to work, when to start work on a particular day, where to work, what to wear, when to take breaks and for how long, and when to quit for the day, there was an excellent chance that they’d be considered independent contractors,

Under the California Wage Orders, which guarantee employees a minimum wage, maximum hours, overtime compensation, meal and rest breaks, and more, that is no longer the case. Now, according to the California Supreme Court, companies must meet a three-prong test to establish independent contractor status (“the ABC test”).

  • A) The company must not be able to control or direct what the worker does, either by contract or in actual practice. This is similar to the test used in the past.
  • B) The worker must perform tasks outside of the hiring entity’s usual course of business. So if you’re a driver for a ride service, a delivery person for a delivery service, or a seamstress for a clothing company, you can’t be an independent contractor no matter how little control the company has over you.
  • C) The worker must be engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business. It’s not enough that the company doesn’t prohibit the worker from having his own business or working for others. Instead, the court will look at factors such as whether the business is incorporated or licensed, whether it’s advertised, and whether it offers services to the public or other potential customers.

It is the employers burden to satisfy all three prongs to establish that the worker is an independent contractor. If it fails to establish one, the worker is entitled to be treated as an employee under the Wage Orders. (The Wage Orders themselves are not particularly helpful in this regard. For example, they circularly define “employee” as ” any person employed by an employer.”)

The Court spent 80+ pages explaining its rationale. Nowhere in that lengthy analysis was any recognition of the upheaval this opinion will cause. Millions of workers in the state that were considered independent contractors will now be deemed employees. This will require employers who have done everything they could to follow the law as it was then understood to reevaluate the nature of the relationship with many of their workers and either modify the relationship or provide them the pay and treatment required by the Wage Orders. They also face litigation, including potential class actions, from workers complaining that they were misclassified. And since this case only addresses the wage order definition, they need to apply different standards (which can lead to different conclusions) in deciding how to characterize workers for purposes such as workers compensation and payroll taxes. As I said, a messy situation just got messier.