This week, a federal court in northern California certified portions of a class action Picture - driverbrought by Uber drivers who worked in California since 2009 (click here for the decision [PDF]).  Over 160,000 drivers have worked for Uber in California during this time period, and while the case is making a lot of news, what are the key issues employers should understand about the ruling?  Here are five takeaways for employers from the decision:

1.     Employers must understand the class action procedure

Employers with more than 30 or so employees should understand what a class action is, and the procedural issues of a class action.  It is important to understand that while the court certified certain portions of the plaintiffs’ case (and refused to certify others), this does not mean that Uber has lost the case.  Class certification is not a ruling on the merits of the case, but only whether the case is one that there a sufficient similarities between all of the class members’ claims that enable to court to decide the matter on a class wide basis.  The court explained:

The merits of the case are not currently at issue. Rather, the Court needs to consider only two questions at this juncture; whether the case can properly proceed as a class action, and, if so, how. While answering both of those questions necessarily requires the Court to perform a rigorous analysis of a number of legal issues, the parties correctly recognize that one threshold issue is of paramount importance to the success or failure of Plaintiffs’ class certification motion: as to whether drivers are Uber’s employees or independent contractors under California’s common-law test of employment, will “questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members” of the proposed class?

….

That is, are the drivers’ working relationships with Uber sufficiently similar so that a jury can resolve the Plaintiffs’ legal claims all at once? This question is of cardinal importance because if the Plaintiffs’ worker classification cannot be adjudicated on a classwide basis, then it necessarily follows that Plaintiffs’ actual substantive claims for expense reimbursement and conversion of gratuities cannot be adjudicated on a classwide basis either.

The court ruled in plaintiffs favor in certifying the class action because Uber treated all of the drivers the same:

As other courts weighing certification of employment misclassification claims have recognized, however, there is inherent tension between this argument and Uber’s position on the merits: on one hand, Uber argues that it has properly classified every single driver as an independent contractor; on the other, Uber argues that individual issues with respect to each driver’s “unique” relationship with Uber so predominate that this Court (unlike, apparently, Uber itself) cannot make a classwide determination of its drivers’ proper job classification.

Uber also made the argument that the class should not be certified because many drivers did not support the lawsuit, as demonstrated in 400 declarations it offered from the drivers.  The court noted that class member’s opposition to the class action does not necessarily bar class certification.  The court explained that it “must be mindful” of the fact that “‘the protections conferred by [these laws] have a public purpose beyond the private interests of the workers themselves.’”  In addition, the court explained that if class members do not agree with the class action, they are free to opt-out of the class action.

2.     The Borello test determines if workers are properly classified as independent contractors

The “most significant consideration” is the putative employer’s “right to control work details.”  S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Dep’t of Indus. Relations (Borello), 48 Cal. 3d 341, 350 (1989).  Recently, the California Supreme Court noted that under the right-of-control test, it is “not how much control a hirer [actually] exercises, but how much control the hirer retains the right to exercise.” Ayala, 59 Cal. 4th at 533.

The second set of factors that the court will look at under the Borello test are as follows:

a) whether the one performing services is engaged in a distinct occupation or business;

(b) the kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the principal or by a specialist without supervision;

(c) the skill required in the particular occupation;

(d) whether the principal or the worker supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place of work for the person doing the work;

(e) the length of time for which the services are to be performed;

(f) the method of payment, whether by the time or by the job;

(g) whether or not the work is a part of the regular business of the principal; and

(h) whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relationship of employer-employee.

Finally, the Borello test has five additional factors borrowed from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in making a determination of a worker’s classification:

(i) the alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending on his managerial skill;

(j) the alleged employee’s investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of helpers;

(k) whether the service rendered requires a special skill;

(l) the degree of permanence of the working relationship; and

(m) whether the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business.

The court analyzed these factors and held that a class action was appropriate in this case “because all (or nearly all) of the individual elements of the Borello test themselves raise common questions which will have common answers.”

3.     It is the employer’s burden to prove the workers are independent contractors, so proceed with caution

The court noted that because Uber drivers “’render service to Uber,’ they are presumptively employees as a matter of law.  Thus, the Plaintiffs have proved their prima facie case, although the ultimate question of their employment status will need to be decided by a jury.  Therefore, the burden will be on Uber at trial to ‘disprove an employment relationship.’”

4.     Understand obligations to reimburse employees for work related expenses

The plaintiffs were also seeking to certify a class of drivers who incurred business expenses and were seeking reimbursement for these expenses under Labor Code section 2802.  While plaintiffs were not entirely clear on what items they were seeking reimbursement for, the court concluded that it appeared the main reimbursement items were for vehicle operating expenses, such as gas, maintenance, and wear and tear.  Plaintiffs, therefore, waived reimbursement claims for other items such as water, gum, and mints for passengers, and clothing costs.  I’ve written previously about employer’s obligations to reimburse drivers for mileage here.

The court noted that these reimbursement claims “can sometimes be problematic to certify as class actions because ‘there may be substantial variance as to what kind of expenses were even incurred by [the workers] in the first place” and “it may be challenging to determine on a classwide basis whether a particular expense (or type of expense) was ‘necessary’ or incurred in ‘direct consequence’ of the employee’s duties.”  The court held that it would not certify the reimbursement class at this point in time because the plaintiffs did not demonstrate that by dropping the reimbursement claims in addition to the mileage reimbursement claim was in the best interest of the class.

5.     Businesses need to be careful about how they characterize tips or service charges to customers, and understand the difference

Plaintiffs also assert that because the drivers should have been classified as employees, Uber violated Labor Code section 351, which precludes employers from taking employee’s tips.  The court granted plaintiffs’ motion for class certification on this issue based on Plaintiffs’ evidence that Uber informed its customers in advertisements that a tip for the driver was included in the cost of the fares (“When the ride is over, Uber will automatically charge your credit card on file.  No cash is necessary.  Please thank your driver, but tip is already included”; “All Uber fares include the tip….”)  Employers must be mindful about how they characterize tips and service charges, and must understand the difference between the two under the law.

1. What is a class action? To understand what a class action is, it is better to start with the basic individual litigation concept. Normally, parties bring their own disputes to court and litigate the case against the other parties who have been officially designated a parties and served with process and understand that they are parties to the lawsuit. Class actions, on the other hand, are brought against a defendant, but the claims are being asserted on behalf of parties who are not actually in the courtroom or named as individual plaintiffs. In the employment context, the plaintiffs are usually represented by at least one named plaintiff who is bringing claims that he or she has an individual on behalf of any other worker to is similar to the named plaintiff. The named plaintiff has to prove to the court that there is a clear class definition that can be arrived at, and the individuals who meet that definition can be ascertained in some manner. This proof is required to be presented when plaintiff brings their motion for class certification as described below. Class actions were developed for a number of reasons. One is to address the problem of  “negative value claims” as described by the court in Baker v. Microsoft:

In particular, class actions are an important way of resolving so-called “negative value claims”; that is, claims that are legitimate, but cost too much to litigate individually. Thus, denying class certification to claims that can be treated in the aggregate is equivalent to denying those claims on the merits.

In addition, because class actions can resolve claims for many individuals in one case, it can potentially save the parties as well as the courts time and costs when compared to requiring multiple cases for individuals involving the same facts and legal issues.

2. Who can bring a class action in the employment context? Any employee or worker who believes that they have suffered an injury while working for an employer could bring a class action on behalf other workers or employees. The complaint filed by the named plaintiff will set for the allegations that they believe make the case suited to be a class action, but the case will not become a class action until the Plaintiffs file a motion with the court asking for the case to be certified as a class action. There are certain requirements that the Plaintiff must prove to the court in order to have the case certified as a class action, and this determination is usually not made early in litigation. The parties will conduct discovery into the allegations and the issues of the case in order to develop the arguments supporting their position of whether or not the case can be certified as a class action. The determination of class certification has a large impact on the case, as the Court in the Microsoft case described:

As the Supreme Court has recognized, the decision whether or not the class is certified is usually the most important ruling in such a case; once a class is certified, plaintiffs who brought claims of even dubious validity can extract an “in terrorem” settlement from innocent defendants who fear the massive losses they face upon an adverse jury verdict. See, e.g., AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 1752 (2011) (“Faced with even a small chance of a devastating loss, defendants will be pressured into settling questionable claims.”).

3. How many employees does there need to be for a class action? In California, there is no set rule for how many individuals need to be in the putative class in order to meet the requirement of “numerosity.” Under Federal law, generally the numerosity element is met if the number of potential class members exceeds 40 people.

4. If the employer can prove it did not violate the law, is this a defense to having a class certified? No. As set forth above, usually before the court is asked to determine the merits of plaintiff’s allegations, the court requires the plaintiff to bring a motion for class certification. The motion for class certification only deals with the requirements regarding whether the case should be certified as a class action, and the court is not allowed to make a ruling on class certification based on the merits of the case. Courts have noted, however, that sometimes when conducting this analysis that there will sometimes be overlap with the merits of plaintiff’s underlying claim.

5. If class certification is denied, can another class action be filed on the same claims? It depends on the facts. Court have recently grappled with this issue, and as noted by the court in the Microsoft case, this has been an issue for courts:

Thus, plaintiff’s counsel need not present meritorious claims to achieve victory; they need obtain only a favorable class certification ruling. In light of the minimal costs of filing a class complaint, an obvious strategy suggests itself: keep filing the class action complaint with different named plaintiffs until some judge, somewhere, grants the motion to certify. So long as such a decision is reached while the plaintiffs who have not yet filed are numerous enough to justify class treatment, the plaintiffs will have a certified class that they can use to extract an in terrorem settlement. … If in terrorem settlements are bad, duplicative lawsuits employed to extract such a settlement are worse. It is no surprise, then, that appellate courts have long been trying to solve this problem.

For example, in California the case Alvarez v. May Dept. Stores Co. (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1223, held that two cases filed against May Department Stores prior to the Alvarez case precluded the Alvarez case from proceeding as a class action. The court, in applying the collateral estoppel doctrine, found that the two prior cases sought to certify the same class of employees, concerned the same policies, concerned the same time period, and one of the prior cases had the same attorneys and therefore did not allow the third filed class action to proceed. The principle behind the collateral estoppel doctrine is to prevent re-litigation of issues previous argued and resolved in an earlier proceeding. As the court set out, in order for the doctrine to apply, the issues must be identical to an issue that was actually litigated and decided to be final on the merits. Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder

Being named as a defendant in a class action lawsuit can be overwhelming, especially for a quickly growing company. However, with planning, a company can minimize the impact of the litigation on its existing operations and put forth the best defense. Here are seven items a company can do as part of this planning process when it is first notified of an existing lawsuit.

1. Contact employment counsel.
A lawyer who has experience in employment law and class actions should be contacted as soon as possible. There are certain deadlines that begin to run when a lawsuit is filed, and any delay could adversely affect the company’s defense. If the company does not know of an employment lawyer, a good start is to reach out to trusted advisors for recommendations, such as the company’s corporate lawyer or accountant. Wage and hour litigation, especially in California, is very unique and it is recommended that the company utilize a lawyer that has experience in this area.

2. Review allegations with counsel to see if the safe harbor provision of the Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) could apply.
With the advice of counsel, there should be a review of the allegations in the complaint, and if the Plaintiff is seeking damages under PAGA, the PAGA notice sent to the Labor Workforce & Development Agency (“LWDA”). PAGA provides the employer a short window of time (33 days from receiving the PAGA notice) to “cure” any alleged violations. If the employer cures the problems within the time period, the Plaintiff cannot recover penalties under PAGA. Whether or not any items need to be cured, and the process for utilizing this safe harbor should be reviewed closely with counsel.

3. Gather time records and personnel files for the Plaintiff.
The personnel file for the named Plaintiff will have to be produced early in the case. In addition, the information in the personnel file will (hopefully) document any performance issues or other possible defenses the company has to the Plaintiff’s allegations. Also, if the company has implemented an arbitration agreement, it will be important to determine if the Plaintiff has signed it and whether or not there is an argument that in signing the agreement the Plaintiff cannot bring a class action.

4. Begin constructing a list of all employees who have worked in similar positions as the Plaintiff during the last four years (which is likely the statute of limitations).
In California, the statute of limitations for most wage and hour class actions is four years from the date the complaint is filed. Therefore, the employees who have worked in the same or similar positions as the Plaintiff will likely be the group of employees the Plaintiff is seeking to represent in the class action. It is important to know how many of these employees there are. For example, if there are too few this could be a defense to class certification.

5. Gather employee handbooks and policies that were in effect during the last four years.
The litigation will likely revolve around what policies the company had in place, and whether the policies were legally compliant. The company’s counsel will have to review these policies and handbooks. It is also likely that the company will have to produce these early in the litigation as well.

6. Review any applicable insurance policies.
The company should review all insurance policies it has to see if any of them could potentially cover the litigation. Most employment practices liability insurance (“EPLI”) policies exclude class action lawsuits from coverage, but there may be coverage for defense costs, or there may be something unique about the litigation facing the company that triggers coverage. It is also important to assess whether the lawsuit needs to be tendered to the insurance company.

7. Develop a plan about how to communicate the existence of the class action with current employees.
Word usually starts to spread quickly among the employees about the existence of the lawsuit. The company, with advice from counsel, should determine whether it wants to be proactive about communicating with the employees about the lawsuit, as well as what can and cannot be said to employees. At the minimum, a person within the company should be designated to handle any questions about the lawsuit. This will ensure a consistent message is used.

Employees of AirTouch who worked for the cellular provider filed a putative class action alleging that the AirTouch employees were entitled to additional wages under California’s “reporting time pay” requirements. The plaintiffs alleged that they were owed reporting time pay for days on which they were required to attend store meetings, which lasted only a short period of time, but were not scheduled to work after the meetings.

California law requires an employer to pay “reporting time pay” under the applicable Wage Order, which states:

Each workday an employee is required to report for work and does report, but is not put to work or is furnished less than half said employee’s usual or scheduled day’s work, the employee shall be paid for half the usual or scheduled day’s work, but in no event for less than two (2) hours nor more than four (4) hours, at the employee’s regular rate of pay, which shall not be less than the minimum wage.

AirTouch would schedule store meetings that all employees were required to attend.  The meetings were scheduled at least four days in advance and were usually held on a Saturday or Sunday before the stores opened.  The meetings lasted from one hour to an hour and a half. Plaintiffs argued because the employees were required to report for the work meetings, which only lasted one to one and a half hours, and then did not work after the meetings, the employees were entitled to two hours of pay under the reporting time pay requirement. 

In rejecting plaintiffs’ argument that the Wage Orders required employers to always pay employees two hours of work when required to report to work, the court stated the following:

To simplify, the issue may be framed by the following question: If an employee’s only scheduled work for the day is a mandatory meeting of one and a half hours, and the employee works a total of one hour because the meeting ends a half hour early, is the employer required to pay reporting time pay pursuant to subdivision 5(A) of Wage Order 4 in addition to the one hour of wages?

The answer to this question is no, because the employee was furnished work for more than half the scheduled time. The employee would be entitled to receive one hour of wages for the actual time worked, but would not be entitled to receive additional compensation as reporting time pay. Although somewhat lengthy and cumbersome, Wage Order 4’s reporting time pay provision is not ambiguous. There is only one reasonable interpretation of subdivision 5(A) as it pertains to scheduled work—when an employee is scheduled to work, the minimum two-hour pay requirement applies only if the employee is furnished work for less than half the scheduled time.

It is important to note a few critical facts of this case. The employer scheduled the meeting times and provided employees with at least four days’ notice of the scheduled meetings. Also, the employees always worked at least half the duration of each scheduled period for the meetings. The case, Aleman v. AirTouch Cellular can be read here.