When my kids were younger, we used to play a guessing game. The questioner would think of someone, real or imaginary. The object was to figure out who. We’d go around the table, and each person gets one question that could only be answered with yes or no, then they’d get one guess. Then it goes to the next person to ask one and guess one.
The best strategy was to ask broad questions first: Is the person real? Is the person alive? Then narrower: Have I ever met the person? Is it someone in our family? It usually took about 10 questions for someone to figure it out, even if the answer was obscure or fictional.
The running gag in our house, though, was that sometimes the answer would be “half-man, half-goat.” I don’t remember how that started, but it’s still a thing in our house. Is it half-man, half-goat? Yes.
This creature has many of the great powers inherent to goats (can butt heads without feeling pain, eats paper cups), but it can’t do everything a goat can do because it’s also saddled with being half-man.
Arbitration agreements can be like that too, especially when included in independent contractor agreements. Arbitration clauses can require independent contractors to arbitrate all disputes, including misclassification claims. One of the great powers of an arbitration clause is the power to require claims to be resolved individually, with each party waiving the right to file class or collective actions. Another great power is to keep the proceedings mostly confidential, in contrast to a court proceeding, which is open to the public.
But one thing arbitration agreements can’t do is bind governmental agencies. A recent decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reminds us that if the Department of Labor (DOL) claims that a business is misclassifying its independent contractors, that dispute is not subject to arbitration. The DOL can escalate the dispute to court.
The Ninth Circuit ruling reminds us that the DOL is not a party to the arbitration agreement and, therefore, cannot be bound by it. Government agencies also have different interests than private litigants. When the government files suit, it can aim to deter similar misconduct and “vindicate a public interest.” Like a bureaucratic superhero.
This outcome is no surprise. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the EEOC was not bound by an arbitration agreement and could pursue relief outside of arbitration for the same reason. The same rule applies for the DOL.
The lesson here is to remember that arbitration agreements can be valuable in many ways, but they’re also a bit (just a bit) like playing with only half a goat. They can’t do it all. When drafting independent contractor agreements, arbitration clauses can be helpful, but they can’t prevent all lawsuits–especially those filed by a government agency.
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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.