In what some believe the first federal trial over the classification of this new 21st Century worker, a federal district court found a Grubhub driver an independent contractor rather than an employee. With this determination, the worker did not qualify for protections extended to employees under California law. This is a big win for Grubhub, although Lawson appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
All eyes were on the case Lawson v. Grubhub Inc. in California. Grubhub is an on-line food ordering service that connects people to restaurants for take-out. In select markets, Grubhub also offers delivery of food through its drivers rather than the customer picking-up directly or a restaurant using its own delivery service.
Raef Lawson, who had worked as a driver for the company for less than six months, sued Grubhub claiming violations of California law. He alleged Grubhub had failed to pay him a minimum wage, overtime, and reimbursement of his work-related expenses. Lawson had worked under a Delivery Service Provider Agreement with Grubhub. He also served as a driver for two of Grubhub’s competitors – Postmates and Caviar – during this same time.
At issue was whether Lawson was an employee subject to certain protections under the law or an independent contractor. In reaching its determination, the trial court primarily considered Grubhub’s right to control Lawson as well as other secondary factors under California’s classification test, referred to as the Borello test. After a trial, the judge found that “considering all of the Borello factors as a whole in light of the trial record, the Court finds that Grubhub has satisfied its burden of showing that Mr. Lawson was properly classified as an independent contractor. While some factors weigh in favor of an employment relationship, Grubhub’s lack of all necessary control over Mr. Lawson’s work, including how he performed deliveries and even whether or for how long, along with other factors persuade the Court that the contractor classification was appropriate for Mr. Lawson during his brief tenure with Grubhub.” While reaching this conclusion, the judge also noted that this test is “an all-or-nothing proposition” and queried whether the legislature should consider other options or tests for these type of on-demand gig economy jobs.
The “gig” economy is a term that refers to a workforce of temporary or freelance workers who take short-term assignments, projects, or gigs. The increase in this on-demand worker shows a shifting away from the traditional long-term work relationship with a single employer to one of temporary projects. For more information on the gig economy, see my segment with Fred Kocher, host of NH Business.
This case is recognized as the first misclassification trial for a worker in the gig-economy. For years, many of us have been watching how the courts would classify these workers under current law. My previous blog posts (here and here) followed the class action litigation involving current and former Uber drivers in Massachusetts and California. Various other gig-economy cases are pending in federal and state courts. This recent decision is significant as it could influence those and other classification cases going forward.