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Colorado Supreme Court holds referral service to be an employer, striking independent contractor classification

In contrast with the Trump Administration’s approach to so-called gig-economy cases, the Colorado Supreme Court recently struck one company’s attempt to classify its workers as independent contractors, not employees.

At the federal level, the Trump Administration has, through both the NLRB and DOL, recently held that (at least some) gig-economy companies, like Uber in particular, are technology companies that merely connect consumers with service providers (example, drivers), and as such, they may lawfully characterize — at least for federal purposes — those service provides as independent contractors.

In this case, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected a company’s argument that it was merely a referral source connecting consumers with housecleaners. The Court held the company was, therefore, liable for Colorado state unemployment taxes.

Does the case signal a rejection of the Trump Administration’s approach at the Colorado state level? Or is the case distinguishable from situations like Uber’s paradigm? These questions have yet to be litigated. It may simply be that the Colorado Supreme Court will reject, at the state level, at least for unemployment, if not also workers compensation, the Trump Administration’s approach at the federal NLRB and DOL level.

Alternatively, the case may suggest some key factual distinctions about the particular company in this case. In the Colorado Supreme Court case, the evidence — unlike arguably in other gig-economy cases — was that the referral company did quite a bit more than simply refer. The Supreme Court noted testimony that it assisted cleaners, it trained them, it exercised “quality control,” it even controlled the cleaners’ ability to hire assistants. The Supreme Court held that all of this combined to be “exactly the control and direction” sufficient to convert a company into an employer, in other words, independent contractors into employees.

Another distinction may have been the apparent lack of technology underlying the cleaning company’s business model. As the federal agencies have noted in their gig-economy cases, companies like Uber characterize themselves as, first and foremost, technology companies. They have invested in and run considerable technological platforms to effectuate their referral systems. It is those very technologies that created their business models. The federal agencies noted that running those technologies is, therefore, the business of a gig-economy company, like Uber. In other words, Uber’s real business is running that technology, not driving. Thuse the company and its service providers are, those agencies have said, in two different businesses.

One thing is clear, companies in Colorado that use independent contractors should immediately review those classifications with experienced legal counsel. This case reflects a continuingly narrow approach to independent contractor classifications at the state level.

Additionally, it should be noted that the Colorado Supreme Court did not note that this company had written agreements in place. Both Colorado state unemployment laws and workers compensation laws create a rebuttable presumption of independent contractor status if companies have written agreements that meet particular statutory requirements. In addition to reviewing their independent contractor classifications, companies should ensure they consult with legal counsel to develop compliant written independent contractor agreements, so they can at least assert the benefit of such a presumption in these cases.

Source: Colorado Custom Maid v. ICAO, case no. 17SC350 (Colo. 5/28/19).

Colorado’s workers compensation requirement might be unconstitutional, at least in part?

An interesting case is winding its way through the Colorado courts.

In Colorado employers of three or more must carry workers compensation insurance. In this case, the employer employed typically between two and four individuals. It failed to carry workers compensation insurance for three different periods of time. When that came to the attention of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the company was fined a whopping $841,200.

The company fired back by challenging the constitutionality of the state’s fines. The fines were issued pursuant to the formulas in Colorado workers compensation laws, CRS 8-43-409(1)(b) and Rule 3-6(D), 7 CCR 1101-3. The company, nonetheless, contends that the fines are “excessive” and therefore in violation of the United States Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

In this decision, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the company might have a case. The court first held that the Eighth Amendment does apply to and protects corporations from excessive governmental fines, not just individuals. Next, the Court outlined the test for analyzing whether a fine is “excessive,” in other words, prohibited. Then the Court remanded the case for further consideration by the Court of Appeals under this new test.

In sum, we hold that the Eighth Amendment does protect corporations from punitive fines that are excessive. The appropriate test to apply in assessing whether a regulatory fine violates the Excessive Fines Clause is the “gross disproportionality” test. In assessing proportionality, a court should consider whether the gravity of the offense is proportional to the severity of the penalty, considering whether the fine is harsher than fines for comparable offenses in this jurisdiction or than fines for the same offense in other jurisdictions. In considering the severity of the penalty, the ability of the regulated individual or entity to pay is a relevant consideration. And the proportionality analysis should be conducted in reference to the amount of the fine imposed for each offense, not the aggregated total of fines for many offenses.

Will the company win under this new approach? It’s too soon to tell. Interested readers will want to follow this case as it continues to be litigated.

Source: Colorado Department of Labor and Employment v. Dani Hospitality, LLC, case no. 17SC200 (Colo. 6/3/19).

“Colorado denies widow half of late husband’s workers’ compensation due to his marijuana use”

The Denver Post reports, “The state of Colorado is denying half the workers’ compensation death benefits to a woman whose husband died while working on a ski lift because he had marijuana in his system.” Colorado workers compensation law does impose a 50% penalty on workers compensation benefits (not including medical expenses) for workers who violated safety rules, including positive drug tests. The Denver Post article reports that in this, the first case to raise the issue, a worker’s positive test for marijuana, following his having been killed on the job, was deemed grounds to deny his widow 50% of the death benefits to which she and their family would otherwise have been entitled. The case has not been appealed to the courts; it currently remains at the agency level. However the issue is ultimately resolved, the case remains a powerful reminder that marijuana remains, in all states, a criminally prohibited drug. While some states, like Colorado, have exceptions from prosecution for state law enforcement, applicable to medical and even recreational use, those are merely exceptions from criminal law enforcement; the use of marijuana itself remains a criminally prohibited act. 

Source: “Colorado denies widow half of late husband’s workers’ compensation due to his marijuana use,” the Denver Post (7/17/18).