Uber’s drivers may be legitimate freelancers, or they may be employees illegally misclassified as freelancers, but either way, they’re all in it together now.

That’s the word of U.S. District Judge Edward Chen, who on Tuesday handed down a ruling granting class status to three drivers who are suing the ridesharing company, saying that by labeling them independent contractors it unlawfully deprived them of expense reimbursement and tips. 

In his 68-page finding, Chen was careful to note that saying the plaintiffs constitute a class--one that potentially now includes a majority of Uber’s 160,000 U.S.-based drivers--doesn’t say anything about whether those plaintiffs have justice on their side when it comes to the merit of their suit. It’s strictly a determination that all Uber drivers operate under effectively the same circumstances of employment. Those include Uber’s five-star rating system for customer feedback, its control of pricing for rides and its ability to terminate employment unilaterally. 

In fact, Chen noted, the company itself has tacitly admitted that its drivers are all in the same boat, in a way, even while opposing class certification. He writes:

On one hand, Uber argues that it has properly classified every single driver as an independent contractor; on the other, Uber argues that individual issues with respect to each driver’s “unique” relationship with Uber so predominate that this Court (unlike, apparently, Uber itself) cannot make a classwide determination of its drivers’ proper job classification.

Not all legal theorists agree with Chen’s reasoning. Joe Seiner, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, recently told me he believes certifying Uber drivers as a class ignores the different “economic realities” that affect drivers who approach Uber as a full-time job or career and those who use it for occasional income supplementation. 

“I don’t think you can answer that question [of employee vs. contractor] looking at the drivers as a whole,” Seiner said. “You have to look at groups of drivers or at individual drivers.” 

Shortly after Chen's ruling was issued, Seiner predicted that the Uber will settle the case rather than go to trial. Meanwhile, another labor law professor, Temple's Brishen Rogers, told me, "I wouldn’t rule out an appeal to the 9th Circuit, which could then push the trial back quite a bit, but also set up an interesting comparison case with the FedEx case from 2014." In that case, another employee-misclassification complaint, FedEx ended up settling for $228 million with delivery workers in the state of California. 

 

Published on: Sep 1, 2015