Common law test for employment governs claim by "licensed agent" challenging independent contractor classification

Test pilots who push the envelope either go on to walk on the moon and serve as legislators or die in fiery crashes.  Either way, they go out in a big way.  Cases that push the envelope don't have such dramatic finishes, but they often clarify the law, and not necessarily in a good way.  In Arnold v. Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company (December 30, 2011), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division One) reviewed the trial court's decision to grant summary judgment in favor of defendant on the claim that a non-exclusive insurance agent was improperly classified as an independent contractor.  A key aspect of the Court's decision concerned the issue of whether the trial court applied the correct test for employment to claims alleging failure to reimburse expenses and failure to timely pay wages.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in applying the common law test for employment that was enunciated in S. G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations, 48 Cal. 3d 341 (1989).  Instead, the plaintiff contended that Labor Code section 2750 supplied a statutory definition of employee that is broader than the common law test and controls the definition of employee applicable to section 2802.  I note here, parenthetically, that this argument seems somewhat similar to an discussion of this issue I presented some years ago on this blog.  At least now I don't have to wonder how a court would react to this analysis.

In any event, the Court cited approvingly to Estrada for its conclusion that the Labor Code does not define "employee" for purposes of section 2802:

One reviewing court has recently held the Labor Code does not expressly define “employee” for purposes of Labor Code section 2802, and therefore, the common law test of employment applies to that section. (Estrada v. FedEx Ground Package System, Inc. (2007) 154 Cal.App.4th 1, 10 (Estrada).) That court went on to cite the “principal” and “additional factors” of the common law test as articulated by the Supreme Court in Borello, supra, 48 Cal.3d 341, and summarized above. (Estrada, supra, at p. 10.)

Slip op., at 6-7.  While the Court noted that Estrada may not have explicitly considered the argument about section 2750, the Court  went on to hold that the common law test must apply, or section 2750 would conflict with the statutes immediately following 2750.

Having settled on the common law test for employment as the correct test, the Court then considered whether the evidence supported the trial court's decision to grant summary judgment.  While it is impossible to know what evidence was submitted, the Court's summary of key evidence suggests that the defendant had the better of it:

The salient evidentiary points established Arnold used her own judgment in determining whom she would solicit for applications for Mutual's products, the time, place, and manner in which she would solicit, and the amount of time she spent soliciting for Mutual's products. Her appointment with Mutual was nonexclusive, and she in fact solicited for other insurance companies during her appointment with Mutual. Her assistant general manager at Mutual's Concord office did not evaluate her performance and did not monitor or supervise her work. Training offered by Mutual was voluntary for agents, except as required for compliance with state law. Agents who chose to use the Concord office were required to pay a fee for their workspace and telephone service. Arnold's minimal performance requirement to avoid automatic termination of her appointment was to submit one application for Mutual's products within each 180-day period. Thus, under the principal test for employment under common law principles, Mutual had no significant right to control the manner and means by which Arnold accomplished the results of the services she performed as one of Mutual's soliciting agents.

Slip op., at 9-10.

It's easy to armchair quarterback, but the factual record described by the Court does not seem like the optimal factual record on which to test this issue.  Then again, when I appealed Alvarez, I'm sure many people said the same thing...  Good thing the Supreme Court bailed me out years after the fact in another case.

A little antitrust nugget in the movie theater business...

This one entertains me becaues it faintly evokes the studio system of the 1930's and the decades of antitrust action by the FTC, with United States v. Paramount Pictures, 334 U.S. 131 (1948) stealing a good deal of the spotlight.  It's not quite as big as Paramount, but it's what we have.  In Flagship Theaters of Palm Desert LLC v. Century Theaters, Inc. (August 31, 2011), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division One) considered an appeal of a summary judgment ruling that ended Flagship's antitrust action.  The allegations were summarized by the Court:

Flagship filed this antitrust action against Century and two film distributors, alleging that Century has used the power deriving from both the size of its theater circuit and its many theaters in noncompetitive markets to undermine the competitive process through which theaters bid for and obtain licenses to exhibit first-run films. According to Flagship, under previous ownership the River and the Palme obtained roughly equal numbers of first-run films, but under Century the River now obtains licenses for far more first-run films than the Palme, the few that are left to the Palme are commercially inferior, and the imbalance is not based on the relative merits of the Palme's and the River's bids. On the contrary, according to Flagship, superior bids by the Palme are often rejected in favor of inferior bids by the River as a result of Century's abuse of the power of its circuit

Slip op., at 2.  I'm not going to cover the Court's interesting attempt to assess the current state of unlawful circuit dealing under the Sherman Act and the Cartwright Act.  But if you practice or dabble in antitrust law, this is like a brief history lesson centered around the movie distribution world.  I will note, however, that the Court wasn't thrilled with all of the sealed documents the Court received and later concluded were not appropriately classified as confidential.

Court of Appeal construes Labor Code section 2810, which authorizes suits against contractors by certain employees of subcontractors

Labor Code section 2810 states that "[a] person or entity may not enter into a contract or agreement for labor or services with a construction, farm labor, garment, janitorial, or security guard contractor, where the person or entity knows or should know that the contract or agreement does not include funds sufficient to allow the contractor to comply with all applicable local, state, and federal laws or regulations governing the labor or services to be provided."   Section 2810 is a fairly new statute, and one that had not been the subject of any Court of Appeal decision.  But in Castillo v. Toll Brothers, Inc. (July 28, 2011), that changed.  I could tell you that this very exciting opportunity to read an opinion in a truly novel area of law prompted my review of the case.  But, in truth, it was just the defendant's name that caught my eye.

In any event, the trial court, dealing with summary judgment motions and lots of supplemental briefing, evidently had its hands full with a large number of arguments intersecting Labor Code section 2810.  The Court of Appeal commended the trial court's diligent efforts:

The order is a masterful synthesis of a sprawling factual record, reflecting the court's careful work with the parties over the course of several months. We recount the decision in some detail because it forms the foundation for our own ruling.

Slip op., at 6.

A key legal issue addressed in the appeal was determination of whether minimum wage or local prevailing wage sets the standard for insufficiency.  The Court also clarified that actual labor cost, and not the base wage, sets the correct standard.

As to the standard for insufficiency, the Court held that the "minimum wage" sets the standard:

Plaintiffs' position is untenable because there is no general law requiring an employer to pay its workers the average local wage for a particular skill or trade, if that average wage is higher than the legal minimum. Merely to pay less than the prevailing wage therefore violates no law. In the absence of a local, state, or federal law requiring the payment of a wage higher than the legal minimum, a contract cannot be insufficient under section 2810 merely because it does not provide sufficient funds to pay that higher wage, since section 2810 imposes nothing more than compliance with legal requirements.

Slip op., at 14.  (Note: Earlier in the opinion the Court clarified that "minimum wage" would depend upon the industry and wage order at issue in a particular case.)  While this soundbite quote seems clear enough, the opinion goes on for pages, reviewing legislative history and addressing, in detail, the contentions of the plaintiffs regarding the correct measure of sufficiency of funding.

On the second issue, the Court observed that compliance with all laws sets the standard for compliance, which requires analysis of total labor cost, not just the wage that would be paid to employees:

Because an employer is required to pay all of these costs to comply with applicable laws when employing a laborer, it is appropriate to use the total labor cost, rather than the worker‘s wage, in determining sufficiency under section 2810.

Slip op., at 7.

The second half of the opinion addresses (1) the sufficiency of evidence for summary judgement purposes on the issue of whether specific contracts were sufficiently funded, and (2) some over-reaching pre-emption arguments by Toll Brothers.  If that stuff floats your boat, this is a page turner.

In brief: Ninth Circuit issues new opinion in Rutti v. Lojack Corporation, Inc.

After granting a panel petition for rehearing, the Ninth Circuit withdrew the Opinion in Rutti v. Lojack Corporation, Inc., 578 F.3d 1084 (9th Cir. 2009), and issued a new opinion, Rutti v. Lojack Corporation, Inc. (9th Cir. March 2, 2010).  The change is significant on the issue of commute time under California law: "[W]e vacate the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Rutti’s claim for compensation of his commute under California law and on his postliminary activity of required daily portable data transmissions, and remand the matter to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."  Slip op., at 3237.  I may provide a longer post about this change later.  The earlier post on Rutti can be found here.


Today's lessons from the Court of Appeal: things not to do

Complex litigation and civil procedure frequently intersect, probably because everyone is scrutinizing every crossed T and dotted I in high stakes litigation.  Today, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Six) offers not one, but two procedural lessons that are at least as likely to arise in complex litigation matters as they are in the simplest of civil actions.

Our first of two lessons comes from Alvis v. County of Ventura (October 20, 2009).  If you have an expert, and he writes a report, and you try to oppose summary judgement with an expert declaration that contradicts his own prior report on a material point, make sure he explains why he changed his tune:

Most significantly, Singh's declaration asserts that the slide started at the bottom of the cliff when the wall failed. This directly contradicts his prior statement in a report to an insurance company that "[f]ailure started as a landslide in the upper reaches and then flowed at a rapid rate down to the developed area below." This is not a minor point. Singh's statement that the slide started in the upper reaches of the cliff directly undercuts the premise on which his entire declaration is based. Yet, Singh offers no explanation.

Slip op., at 15.  If the expert had provided a credible explanation for why he altered his opinion, it might have made it past the summary judgment stage.

The next lesson is as much for arbitrators as it is for parties to litigation.  Burlage v. Superior Court (Spencer) (October 20, 2009) observes that "[i]t is not often that a trial court vacates an arbitration award and an appellate court affirms the order."  Slip op., at 1.  Since Moncharsh v. Heily & Blase, 3 Cal. 4th 1 (1992), lower courts have struggled to define the limited circumstances when a trial court can properly review an arbitration award.  Burlage concludes that one such circumstance arises when the arbitrator excludes material evidence, denying one contracting party the benefit of the arbitration bargain:  "The parties to an arbitration have bargained for a final and binding decision.  (Moncharsh v. Heily & Blase, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 10.) But without the opportunity to present material evidence, Spencer did not receive the benefit of that bargain."  Slip op., at 7.  Notably, there is a dissent, which argues, in substance, that the exclusion of evidence followed a ruling of law that the evidence was inadmissible, and the accuracy of that ruling cannot be reviewed by the trial court.

Credit goes to Presiding Justice Gilbert for both opinions.

in brief: More commentary about Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc.

Whether it is the intensity of the Opinion, the facts discussed in the Opinion, or a combination of the two, Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc. (October 9, 2009) is generating a fair bit of commentary.  Workplace Prof Blog encourages everyone to read the entire opinion.  Storm's California Employment Law agrees, saying, "You have to read this opinion."  I agree.  You should read the opinion.

Media coverage of Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc.

Mike McKee's Recorder column on the recent decision in Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc. (October 9, 2009), previously available only by subscription, is now available without a subscription from  Mike McKee, On Summary Judgment, Judge Gets a Spanking (October 13, 2009)

It is possible to go too far in litigation, and Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc. provides frightening examples of that excess

Sometimes litigation is complex because the lawyers make it that way.   So often those litigation excesses are tolerated by Courts and achieve their goals, which just encourages the bad behavior.  Then it spreads like mold, getting copied.  However, just as my cynicism reaches that tipping point, a Court of Appeal authors a new opinion to right the ship.  For example, in Clement v. Alegre (September 23, 2009), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division Two) weighed in on discovery conduct.  See September 24, 2009 blog post.  And I am pleased to report that the First Appellate District, Division Two, is back business setting litigators back on the straight and narrow with their latest opinion, Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc. (October 9, 2009).

Since complex litigation is in the eye of the beholder, I say that monstrous motions for summary adjudication are "complex."  By that standard, Nazir is topical, and I proceed.  Nazir is about the summary judgment procedure.  Nazir begins by describing the terrain into which the opinion will descend:

Our Supreme Court has said that the purpose of the 1992 and 1993 amendments to the California summary judgment statute was “to liberalize the granting of motions for summary judgment.” (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 854.) It is no longer called a “disfavored remedy.” It has been described as having a salutary effect, ridding the system, on an expeditious and efficient basis, of cases lacking any merit. And that it has, as shown by the many cases affirming a summary judgment.

At the same time, the summary judgment procedure has become the target of criticism on a number of fronts. Some particular criticism is directed to the procedure in employment litigation, including that it is being abused, especially by deep pocket defendants to overwhelm less well-funded litigants. More significantly, it has been said that courts are sometimes making determinations properly reserved for the factfinder, sometimes drawing inferences in the employer‟s favor, sometimes requiring the employees to essentially prove their case at the summary judgment stage. Here we confront the poster child for such criticism, in a case involving what may well be the most oppressive motion ever presented to a superior court.

Slip op., at 1.  In a suit for harassment, discrimination and retaliation, Defendants filed motions for summary judgment or summary adjudication, and the court described the ensuing papers as follows:

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment/summary adjudication, seeking adjudication of 44 issues, most of which were not proper subjects of adjudication. Defendants' separate statement was 196 pages long, setting forth hundreds of facts, many of them not material—as defendants' own papers conceded. And the moving papers concluded with a request for judicial notice of 174 pages. All told, defendants' moving papers were 1056 pages.

Plaintiff's opposition was almost three times as long, including an 1894-page separate statement, papers the trial court would later disparage as "mostly verbiage," a description with which, as will be seen, we disagree. Curiously, no such criticism was leveled at defendants' papers, not even those in reply, papers that defy description.

Defendants' reply included, and properly, their response to plaintiff's additional disputed facts. Defendants' reply also included, not so properly, a 297-page "Reply Separate Statement" and 153 pages of "Exhibits and Evidence in Support of Defendants' Reply." And the reply culminated with 324 pages of evidentiary objections, consisting of 764 specific objections, 325 of which were directed to portions of plaintiff's declaration, many of which objections were frivolous. In all, defendants filed 1150 pages of reply.

Slip op., at 2.  The Court then summarized the task before it:

This, then, is what is before us for de novo review: an order granting summary judgment that purports to sustain without explanation 763 out of 764 objections to evidence, in a record the likes of which we have never seen—not here, not in the combined 11 years of law and motion experience of the members of this panel.

Slip op., at 3.  But wait! This is only the third page of an opinion spanning over 50 pages.  Consider these comments about the record on appeal:

On August 30, 2007, defendants filed a "Motion for Summary Judgment or, in the Alternative, Summary Adjudication," with moving papers totaling 1056 pages. Plaintiff filed his lengthy opposition which, as quoted above, the trial court described as "mostly verbiage, and utterly lacking in the identification and presentation of evidence demonstrating a disputed issue of fact."

Seemingly emboldened by this description, defendants' brief here begins this way: "As in Macbeth's soliloquy, Appellant's Opening Brief (AOB), like his summary judgment opposition below, is full of 'sound and fury, [but ultimately] signifying nothing.' Despite filing an 1894 page(!) opposition separate statement, which the trial court found . . . in a manner deliberately calculated to obfuscate whether any 'purportedly disputed facts were actually controverted by admissible evidence,' the trial court properly granted summary judgment in this case. As with Nazir's opposition statement, his AOB is 'mostly verbiage, and utterly lacking in the identification and presentation of evidence demonstrating a disputed issue of fact.'"

Passing over whether such disparagement is effective advocacy, the "girth" of materials before the trial court began with defendants, whose 1056 pages of moving papers were in great part inappropriate, beginning with the motion itself.

Slip op., at 4.  The Court then spends considerable time summarizing the defects in the Separate Statement:

The deficiencies in the motion pale in comparison to those in the separate statement. "Separate statements are required not to satisfy a sadistic urge to torment lawyers, but rather to afford due process to opposing parties and to permit trial courts to expeditiously review complex motions for [summary adjudication] and summary judgment to determine quickly and efficiently whether material facts are undisputed." (United Community Church v. Garcin (1991) 231 Cal.App.3d 327, 335.) The separate statement "provides a convenient and expeditious vehicle permitting the trial court to hone in on the truly disputed facts." (Collins v. Hertz Corp. (2006) 144 Cal.App.4th 64, 74.) That hardly describes defendants' separate statement here.

The separate statement is, as noted, 196 pages. The exact number of supposedly material facts is impossible to know without actually counting them, as many of the facts are often repeated with the same numbers. But whatever the number, many of the facts are not material, as defendants concede, their separate statement beginning with this quizzical footnote: "The facts are deemed undisputed for purposes of this motion only and do not constitute any admission. For purposes of this motion only, Plaintiff's statements are accepted as true. Not all facts listed herein are necessarily material, as certain facts are asserted for background, foundational, information, or other purposes. Also, by including the facts set forth herein, Defendants are not waiving their right to challenge the admissibility of such facts in connection with this motion or for other purposes in this case."

We offer two observations about this footnote. The first is that it ignores the advice from the leading practice treatise: "PRACTICE POINTER: [¶] . . . [¶] Include only those facts which are truly material to the claims or defenses involved because the separate statement effectively concedes the materiality of whatever facts are included. Thus, if a triable issue is raised as to any of the facts in your separate statement, the motion must be denied!" (Weil & Brown, Cal. Practice Guide: Civil Procedure Before Trial (The Rutter Group 2009) § 10:95.1, p. 10-35.) The second is that there seems to be some disconnect between defendants' concession that "Plaintiff's statements are accepted as true" and defendants' 325 objections to plaintiff's testimony. In short, defendants' separate statement was particularly inappropriate.

The deficiencies carried over to the reply papers, which included a 297-page reply separate statement. There is no provision in the statute for this. The reply also included 153 pages of "Exhibits and Evidence in Support of Reply." No such evidence is generally allowed. (San Diego Watercrafts, Inc. v. Wells Fargo Bank (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 308, 316.) And, of course, there were the objections, 764 in all, which we discuss below. Suffice to say that there is plenty of blame for the "girth" the trial court criticized, most of which, we conclude, lies at the feet of defendants.

But neither the inappropriateness of defendants' papers nor their excessive volume is the worst aspect of those papers. No, that is the misleading picture those papers presented. An article coauthored by an experienced Superior Court judge has "intended to point out, in ascending order of seriousness, certain fatal errors and other problems [the court has] encountered" in connection with summary judgment motions, at the very top of which are motions "that attempt to 'hide' triable issues of material fact."  (Brenner & March, Use and Abuse of MSJs: A View from the Bench (2007) 49 Orange County Law 34, 37.) The article admonishes that a motion "should never cite evidence out of context in an effort to conceal a clearly triable issue of material fact," going on to cite two recent examples in that judge's court, one in a sexual harassment case, the other in one for wrongful termination. (Id. at p. 37.) Here, in vivid detail, is a third.

Slip op., at 5-7.  The Court was then compelled to spend considerable time discussing the objections to plaintiff's evidence, as the state of admitted evidence governed the Court's de novo review of the Motions themselves.   Without quoting the many pages of discussion about the frivolous nature of the many objections asserted by defendants, the Court, at one point in the opinion writes, "Can this be serious? Can counsel see themselves rising at trial with those objections while plaintiff is testifying before a jury?"  Slip op., at 11.  The Court then offered this advice in a footnote:

We sometimes "hear" that a common practice in cases staffed by multiple levels of lawyers is to assign the most junior lawyer to "do the objections," which was apparently done here. Perhaps a wiser practice would be have the most experienced lawyer, presumably with a better understanding of the law of evidence, deal with the objections.

Slip op. at 11, n. 6.

The balance of the Opinion, once it moves beyond its focus on the form of the filings before the Court, is an excellent example of detailed application of facts to the complex schemes of law governing harassment, continuing violations, discrimination, exhaustion of administrative remedies and the like.  If you don't practice in the area of employment law, the first third of the opinion is still highly relevant, and the balance is a good example of what to consider when bringing or opposing a motion for summary judgment/adjudication.

The Court ends its opinion by reminding trial courts that they possess inherent power to correct abusive summary judgment filings:

The deficiencies in summary judgment papers can appear in a variety of places, and the approaches taken by the courts to address the deficiencies can vary as well, limited only by the inspiration or creativity of the particular law and motion judge—and, of course, due process. There is no universal solution, no panacea, and we do not even attempt to offer suggestions. We write here only to confirm the existence of the inherent power, to remind trial courts of it, and to encourage them to use it when appropriate.

Slip op., at 51.  I think this panel is too modest.  They seem more than up to the challenge of suggesting methods to curtail incidents like the one chronicled in its Opinion.  At any rate, they do yeoman's work and deserve a raise (not that this mismanaged, financially destitute state could provide one).

The UCL Practitioner has already identified some press coverage of this decision in a post from earlier today.