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The Uber ruling — a bad ride for real estate’s independent contractor status?

Several pending court cases could impact our industry in a big way

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The real estate industry has been focused on Monell v. Boston Pads and Bararsani v. Coldwell Banker because these cases will determine whether the real estate industry will continue to operate using independent contractor status.

Two recent rulings against Uber, coupled with previous judgments against ZipRealty and FedEx, might ultimately be the cases that decide this issue.

The California Labor Commissioner’s ruling last week against Uber couldĀ set a precedentĀ that forces real estate agents into employee status. However, this shift might not result from a trial court ruling; instead, it might be due to the magnitude of fines that the California Labor Commissioner can assess.

The ZipRealty litigation

In November 2010, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement issued an ODA (order, decision or award) in favor of the four agent plaintiffs against ZipRealty for misclassifying them as independent contractors rather than employees.

The plaintiffs alleged that ZipRealty had violated the California Labor Code by failing to pay them minimum wage and overtime premium pay. Excluding attorneys’ fees and the costs of suit, the four ODA amounts totaled approximately $330,000.

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ZipRealty appealed. The appellate court upheld the plaintiffs’ awards and ruled that ZipRealty violated California labor law. ZipRealty settled the four claims for close to $600,000.

Although the settlement ended the litigation, the Labor Commissioner then sought to recover unpaid wages and overtime for all ZipRealty agents throughout California. The new action against ZipRealty sought $7.5 million in minimum wages, $1.25 million in premium overtime pay and over $9 million in additional damages. The case ultimately settled for $5 million.

The company was also to pay the employer’s share of federal payroll taxes and other employer tax responsibilities on back wages as they were distributed to former employees.

After the settlement, the California Labor Commissioner issued a warning: “Employers considering appealing Labor Commissioner awards should keep the ZipRealty case in mind,” Commissioner Su said in a press release.

“If our agency determines that violations go beyond the claims before us, we can and will pursue those cases for all affected employees. We learned of ZipRealty’s systemic minimum wage violations during the litigation of these cases in Superior Court.”

The scenario above is strikingly similar to the situation that Uber now faces. The California Labor Commissioner has found against Uber. Uber is now going to appeal.

Although no one can predict what the Labor Commission will do, Uber could find itself facing “systemic minimum wage violations” that could result in the same type costs that ZipRealty incurred.

Moreover, this decision comes on the heels of two other rulings against Uber. Uber recently lost a Florida case on independent contractor status.

Furthermore, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (Case 3:13-cv-03826-EMC Document 251) ordered Uber to stand trial before a jury on the issue of whether it misclassified drivers as independent contractors rather than employees for purposes of the California Labor Code.

Disturbing news for the real estate industry

The U.S. District Court’s ruling that denied Uber’s appeal for summary judgment contained language that poses a real threat for the real estate industry’s current independent contractor model.

That language is as follows: “The Court first concludes that Plaintiffs are Uber’s presumptive employees because they ‘perform services’ for the benefit of Uber.”

The District Court’s decision pointed to the California Supreme Court ruling that held, “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.”

Furthermore, “When evaluating the extent of that control, the Supreme Court has stressed that an employer’s ‘right to discharge at will, without cause, is ‘strong evidence in support of an employment relationship,'” the court found in Borello, 48 Cal. 3d at 350.

Both of these scenarios apply to the real estate industry. Agents can work for only one broker. Moreover, both the agent and the broker have the right to end their employment agreement without cause.

The FedEx misclassification ruling

The judgments against ZipRealty pale in comparison to those made against FedEx for misclassification of their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.

On Aug. 27, 2014, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision against a FedEx independent contractor misclassification class action case in California.

FedEx settled the case with the 2,300 drivers involved in the complaint for $228 million (almost $100,000 per driver). It is believed that the bulk of the settlement will be for reimbursement of necessary expenses. Alexander v. FedEx Ground Package System, No. 3:05-cv-00038-EMC (U.S. District Court, Northern District of California).

A nightmare scenario

Although the real estate industry defends the current independent contractor model in state court, the Uber and FedEx litigation is playing out at the federal level. In other words, the judgments in these cases might apply nationally, not just at the state level.

Moreover, if the California Labor Commission comes after Uber for “systemic violations,” it could potentially set a precedent for the current litigation against Redfin and Coldwell Banker in California.

These examples raise the most disturbing question of all: How many real estate companies could sustain fines of $100,000 per agent for misclassification of their agents and still stay in business?

Bernice Ross, CEO of RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, author and trainer with over 1,000 published articles and two best-selling real estate books. Learn about her training programs atwww.RealEstateCoach.com/AgentTraining and www.RealEstateCoach.com/newagent

Email Bernice Ross.