California Supreme Court Ruling Impacts Independent Consulting and Subcontracting – Keep It Legal!

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:: Two months ago, the California Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the case Dynamex Operations West Inc. v. Superior Court that is likely to result in it being harder to qualify as an independent contractor, as well as more difficult to legally hire subcontractors to help you with your work.

More than ever, it’s critical that self-employed consultants and their subcontractors take steps to maximum their chances to pass what is likely to become a stricter vendor compliance process. Otherwise, it’s very likely that companies will demand that you do the work as a “W-2 employee” hired through a staffing agency. (Related 2-minute video, “Friends Don’t Let Friends W-2TM)

How It Used To Be

Prior to the Dynamex case, California had used a multi-factor test established by the California Supreme Court in 1989 in S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations. Under Borello, the primary consideration in determining whether an employment relationship existed was whether the company had the right to control the manner and means by which the worker performed the work.  Where control was lacking, a worker was likely to be found to be an independent contractor. In addition, secondary factors, such as the degree of skill required to perform the work, the method of payment, and the nature of the company’s business, could be considered in making the ultimate determination.

How It Is Now

Under the Dynamex ruling, the California Supreme Court ruled that for the purposes of California Wage Orders (a subset of employment law) the hired worker is presumed to be an employee. The company has the burden of proving that the worker is an independent contractor by showing that a three-part test (the “ABC” test) is met.

The hiring company must prove:

  1. That the hired worker is free from the company’s control and direction both under the terms of any contract and in how the work is actually done;
  2. That the work being done by the hired worker is outside the usual course of the company business; and
  3. That the hired worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, business, or occupation of the same nature as the work he or she performs for the company.

All three parts of the test must be metby you when you work for clients, and by any subcontractors you hire to help you with your work.

The first requirement aligns with the previously established “right to control” test and is nothing new.  The independent worker must control how, when and where the work is done. The company must only contract for the end product, not how it is achieved.

The second requirement means that the hired worker must perform work that is outside of the company’s business. In Dynamex, the company’s business was providing delivery services to various customers. Because the workers at issue were driving the trucks, the workers were performing work that was found to be part of the “usual course” of the company’s business. The Court’s reasoning focused on the hiring company’s “primary” business purpose. This reasoning is useful for independent consultants because you are being employed to provide consulting services which presumably are not in the usual course of the client’s business. For example, an organizational change consultant hired to provide consulting services to an apparel company would probably satisfy this part of the test even if the apparel company had an organizational effectiveness department because the company’s primary business is apparel, not organizational change services. On the other hand, this reasoning will be tricky if you hire subcontractors to help you with your work.

The third requirement of the ABC Test will be the most problematic for self-employed consultants and subcontractors. The California Supreme Court held that an independent contractor has ordinarily “been understood to refer to an individual who independently has made the decision to go into business for himself or herself.”  Evidence of such activity usually consists of “incorporation, licensure, advertisements, and offering to provide services to the general public or potential customers.” In addition, the California Supreme Court referenced decisions from other courts that relied on such factors as: having business cards, sending invoices prior to payment, having a business telephone, having a business location, and being paid by more than one entity. Although the Court made it clear that none of these particular actions are required to prove that an individual is engaged in an independent business, it is clear that in the absence of these factors, or many of them, the courts will be reluctant to conclude that the individual is engaged in an independent business. It’s because of this third part of the test that you need to pay attention to how you operate, including how you hire subcontractors.

Bottom line, the Dynamex decision has made a bad situation worse. Companies will be hesitant to hire individuals as independent contractors and instead will force them into a temporary W-2 relationship. Take steps now to improve your chances of remaining independent. The longer you can show that you have been engaged in an independent business, the more likely that the ABC test will be satisfied. There’s an old saying, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.” The same is true now for self-employed professionals. You need to look like a business, be set up like a business, and act like a business in order to be paid like a business.

At the July 19 2018 General Meeting, I’ll outline the steps you need to take to keep it legal and answer your questions.  Click here for details and tickets.

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CAVEAT:  This blog article provides information about a specific state court ruling. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed, as legal advice for any particular fact situation. Your situation depends on your particular facts.  Reading a summary of a specific court decision is no substitute for consulting with, and obtaining the advice of a qualified employment attorney in the State or States in which you work and reside. Only an attorney can provide you with legal advice for your particular situation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Henry Telfeian is a labor relations and employment attorney as well as the general counsel for the Professional Independent Consultants of America, Inc. (PICA Inc.). A cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, he is an active member of the Supreme Court bar association and an advocate for self-employed professionals.

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