Cristler v. Express Messenger says more about the standard of review on appeal than it does about class actions or employee misclassification

Greatsealcal100When does a class action go to trial? That’s not an easy question to answer. The potential recovery is a factor, but not always. Personalities involved in the litigation are a factor, but not always. The jury pool is factor, but not always. However, when the class is seeking to declare unlawful a delivery company’s classification of delivery drivers as “independent contractors,” it looks like a sure bet that the class action will go to trial.

In Cristler v. Express Messenger Systems, Inc. (February 11, 2009), the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division One) considered challenges to a number of rulings surrounding the trial of plaintiffs’ claim that defendant misclassified its delivery drivers as “independent contractors.” While this opinion does discuss the legal standard for determining employment, the Court of Appeal limited its review, based upon what appellant presented:

Cristler emphasizes throughout its briefing that other cases addressing the proper classification of package delivery drivers have resulted in findings that the drivers were employees, rather than independent contractors. (See Estrada, supra, 154 Cal.4th at pp. 11-12 [reciting litany of factors that provided substantial evidence to support trial court's finding that FedEx drivers were employees, including "FedEx's control over every exquisite detail of the drivers' performance, including the color of their socks and the style of their hair"]; JKH Enterprises, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations (2006) 142 Cal.App.4th 1046, 1065 [listing factors that provided substantial evidence for trial court's conclusion that drivers were employees and thus "reject[ing] JKH's contention" that the evidence "dictate[d] but one conclusion here — that the drivers are independent contractors"]; Air Couriers, supra, 150 Cal.App.4th at p. 938 [same].) The simple answer to these references is that these cases concerned different circumstances presented to a different finder of fact. Indeed, even if the facts of this case were identical to those in the cases Cristler cites (and they are not), we would not be authorized to overrule the determination of the jury to achieve conformity with other cases — particularly as Cristler does not even argue that the jury's verdict is unsupported by substantial evidence.

(Slip op., at p. 8, fn. 2.) If nothing else, this certainly suggests a trend when suing delivery companies who have, as their business model, decided to classify delivery drivers as “independent contractors.”

As part of the appeal, plaintiffs contended that the trial court erred by failing to continually review the class definition to ensure that class members were not inappropriately excluded: “In the instant case, regardless of whether the trial court erred in defining the class, Cristler fails to carry its burden of establishing reversible error as there is no showing of prejudice from the trial court's assertedly erroneous rulings.” (Slip op., at p. 11.) Continuing, the Court explained: “In light of the trial court's refusal to expand the class definition, the drivers who remained in the class — those without any employees of their own and who did not deliver even an occasional package for clients other than Express Messenger — were the most likely to be characterized as Express Messenger's employees rather than as independent contractors.” (Ibid.) Losing at trial with a narrow class didn’t do much for the plaintiffs’ arguments.