The new decision in Beaumont-Jacques v. Farmers Group examines the test in determining a worker’s independent contractor status. In applying the “economic realities” test set forth by the California Supreme Court in S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Dept. of Industrial Relations, the Court focused on whether the worker had “meaningful discretion with reference to her efforts” in making the determination about whether her classification as an independent contractor was proper.
In this case, Plaintiff had an agreement with the company that set forth both parties understood and agreed Plaintiff would be working as an independent contractor. The agreement required Plaintiff to conform to the company’s regulations, operations, and certain standards. The agreement provided that either party could terminate the relationship at-will. Moreover, Plaintiff had “meaningful discretion” by recruiting agents and training them to work for the company. She would determine her own hours, vacation schedule, supervising her own staff, remitting payroll taxes for her own staff, paying her own expenses such as office lease, marketing costs and telephones. She also deducted these costs as a business expense in her personal tax returns and identified herself as self-employed in the returns.
The court stated that the “pivotal inquiry looks at the ‘control of details’ – i.e., whether the [company] has ‘the right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired.” As the court noted, however, this does not mean that once the company requires certain standards from the worker that this would automatically make the worker an employee:
The California Supreme Court has declared that “the owner may retain a broad general power of supervision and control as to the results of the work so as to insure satisfactory performance of the independent contract—including the right to inspect [citation], the right to make suggestions or recommendations as to details of the work [citation], the right to prescribe alterations or deviations in the work [citation]—without changing the relationship from that of owner and independent contractor . . . .” (McDonald v. Shell Oil Co. (1955) 44 Cal.2d 785, 790 (McDonald).)
The court explained that the key issue is that the company has the right to “oversee the results, but not the mean, of the work in question” in order for the independent contractor status to be upheld.
Applying this test in this case, the court held that Plaintiff was properly classified as an independent contractor because the Defendant did not control “to any meaningful degree the means by which [Plaintiff] performed and accomplished her duties” even though Plaintiff had to attend meeting with the company and was held accountable to reach very specific objectives. Finally, the court held that the fact that the agreement at issue here which allowed both parties to terminate the relationship upon 30-days’ notice did not support Plaintiff’s assertion she was an employee. Because the relationship could be terminated by either Plaintiff or the company, the court did not provide this issue any weight.
However, even though the court found that the Plaintiff in this case was properly classified as an independent contractor, employers should be careful in making independent contractor classifications. The relatively new Labor Code provisions adopted in 2012 added new penalties for “willful misclassification” of employees as independent contractors which cannot be treated lightly.