Ninth Circuit finds that propriety of independent contractor status is not well suited to summary adjudication in Narayan v. EGL, Inc.

In Narayan v. EGL, Inc. (July 13, 2010), the Ninth Circuit reviewed a district court order granting summary judgment to defendant EGL, Inc. on the theory that the plaintiffs were independent contractors, not employees as contended in their lawsuit.  After examining choice of law issues, the Court turned to the showing required to obtain summary judgment on the employment-status issue.  In particular, the Court explained the special burdens in this type of action:

There are two special circumstances that are relevant to the application of this standard here. First, under California law, once a plaintiff comes forward with evidence that he provided services for an employer, the employee has establisheda prima facie case that the relationship was one of employer/employee. Robinson v. George, 105 P.2d 914, 917 (Cal. 1940). As the Supreme Court of California has held, “[t]he rule . . . is that the fact that one is performing work and labor for another is prima facie evidence of employment and such person is presumed to be a servant in the absence of evidence to the contrary.” Id. at 916; see also Cristler v. Express Messenger Sys., Inc., 171 Cal. App. 4th 72, 83 (Ct. App. 2009). Once the employee establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer, which may prove, if it can, that the presumed employee was an independent contractor. Cristler, 171 Cal. App. 4th at 84 (approving a jury instruction that “[t]he Defendant has the obligation to prove that the Plaintiffs were independent contractors”)

Slip op., at 10078.  The Court then discussed the employment test in California, saying:  "The Supreme Court of California has enumerated a number of indicia of an employment relationship, the most important of which is the 'right to discharge at will, without cause.' Borello, 769 P.2d at 404 (quoting Tieberg v. Unemployment Ins. App. Bd., 471 P.2d 975, 979 (Cal. 1970)).  Slip op., at 10079.  Incidentally, the right to discharge at will is concomitant with, and, to a large extent creates, the right to control.  The Court then listed the many additional employment test factors approved by Borello.  Such multi-factor tests, the Court concluded, don't lend themselves to summary adjudication:

Judge Easterbrook has keenly observed in a case under the Fair Labor Standards Act that:

[i]f we are to have multiple factors, we should also have a trial. A fact-bound approach calling for the balancing of incommensurables, an approach in which no ascertainable legal rule determines a unique outcome, is one in which the trier of fact plays the principal part. That there is a legal overlay to the factual question does not affect the role of the trier of fact.

Sec’y of Labor v. Lauritzen, 835 F.2d 1529, 1542 (7th Cir. 1987) (Easterbook, J., concurring) (internal citations omitted).

Slip op., at 10080-81.  The Court then reviewed the record, criticizing the trial court for not crediting evidence of the right to terminate at will set forth in the contracts between defendant and plaintiffs and other evidence consistent with employment, including the lack of any need for specialized training and the fact that the Internal Revenue Service declared the plaintiffs employees under its multi-factor employment test.

Judge Easterbrook received a number of nods from the Court.  In describing the policy goals of wage & hour statutes, the Court said:

As Judge Easterbrook observed in a closely analogous context, statutes enacted to confer special benefits on workers are “designed to defeat rather than implement contractual arrangements.” Sec’y of Labor v. Lauritzen, 835 F.2d 1529, 1545 (7th Cir. 1987) (Easterbook, J., concurring).

Slip op., at 10073.  In other words, the protections granted by California's Labor Code are designed, in part, to defeat employer attempts to circumvent them with "independent contractor" agreements.