Joint-Employer Liability

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board announced that it will no longer use the Browning-Ferris joint-employer test. If you don’t have a union, why should you care? This is the test that many courts consider when determining just who employed (and is therefore responsible for) an employee who is suing for any number of reasons.

What Was the Browning-Ferris Test?

Alas, Browning-Ferris, We Barely Knew You: NLRB Rejects Its Own Recently Adopted Joint-Employer TestYou may recall that about a year ago, in Browning-Ferris Industries of California v. NLRB, et al., the NLRB implemented an unprecedented expansion of its joint-employer test. When two or more businesses share control over a worker’s terms of employment, the NLRB (and others) often need to determine who that employee’s actual employer is. The Browning-Ferris decision came up with an indirect control test in which a business with little, if any, control over an employee could qualify as the employer, resulting in many more joint-employer relationships. All that the indirect control standard required was that the entities in question be “employers” under common law precedent and share or codetermine matters regarding the employee’s terms and conditions of employment. The Browning-Ferris decision was met with much controversy, but the opposition can now rest easy, because the NLRB has restored its former joint-employer standard.

What is the Current Standard?

The original (and now current) standard focuses on the degree of direct and immediate control by employers. The test requires direct and immediate control over the essential terms and conditions of employment, such as hiring, firing, and disciplining employees. In a press release, the NLRB stated the following:

In all future and pending cases, two or more entities will be deemed joint employers under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) if there is proof that one entity has exercised control over essential employment terms of another entity’s employees (rather than merely having reserved the right to exercise control) and has done so directly and immediately (rather than indirectly) in a manner that is not limited and routine. Accordingly, under the pre–Browning Ferris standard restored today, proof of indirect control, contractually-reserved control that has never been exercised, or control that is limited and routine will not be sufficient to establish a joint-employer relationship.

Takeaways

This is good news for employers, as it is now harder for a worker to claim that more than one business is his or her employer. Not surprisingly, this decision is hotly contested by champions for unionization.

How can your company avoid joint-employer liability? Try some of these tips:

  1. Keep your human resources and payroll functions separate and independent.
  2. Maintain separate lines of supervision.
  3. Do not comingle equipment and resources unless all of the exchanges of such clearly are accounted for in some business fashion.
  4. Do not have one company and its C-suite governing the operation of a second company.
  5. Certainly maintain separate books and tax records.
  6. Keep brands separate.
  7. Take care of the obvious stuff, such as don’t use the same telephone number and switchboard.
  8. Use contracts, subcontracts, and consulting contracts to maintain arm’s length business obligations between the services of the companies.
  9. Maintain confidentiality of trade secrets and bidding information.
  10. Keep those union and nonunion workers as far from each other as possible.

“It Wasn’t Me!” – Sixth Circuit Rules that Management Consultant Wasn’t Joint Employer under the WARN ActCan your consultant-consultee relationship with an employer who allegedly violates the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act subject you to liability as well? Not according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In McKinney v. Carlton Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Inc., former nursing home employees sued Carlton Manor and its management consultant for alleged violations of the WARN Act.

The Facts

In July 2013, the Ohio Department of Health cited Carlton Manor for failing to meet 27 federal health and safety regulations and gave it until January 2014 to fix the problems. Carlton Manor hired Sovran, a management consultant, to help and by the deadline had resolved 26 of the 27 deficiencies. The health department rejected its plan to comply with the final regulation and began the process of revoking Carlton Manor’s operating license. The nursing home closed soon after.

Before closing, Carlton Manor gave little notice to its employees (and certainly not the 60 days the WARN Act requires). Consequently, Debi McKinney filed a putative class action against Carlton Manor and Sovran under the WARN Act. Although the employees received a default judgment against Carlton Manor, they received nothing because the nursing home had no assets. As one would expect, they turned to Sovran, the only solvent defendant in the case. However, the employees still hit a brick wall, as the district court ruled that Sovran was not liable under the act because it was not the employees’ employer and did not decide to close the nursing home. The district court granted summary judgment for Sovran, and the employees appealed.

The Sixth Circuit’s Opinion

In reaching its ruling, the Sixth Circuit first focused on the words of the WARN Act, explicitly articulating that “employers” were liable for violations. Specifically, “[o]nly ‘employers’ that ‘order[ed]’ a plant closing face[d] regulation by the Act or liability under it.” The Sixth Circuit emphasized that there was no dispute that Carlton Manor, not Sovran, employed the nursing home workers. Likewise, Carlton Manor, not Sovran, made the final decision to close the nursing home. Based on these facts, Sovran was not an employer under the terms of the act.

Despite McKinney’s attempt to argue that Sovran and Carlton Manor were either a “single employer” or “separate employers,” the Sixth Circuit easily rejected these theories. On the single employer theory, the Sixth Circuit held that none of the factors that make two entities a single employer were present. There was no common ownership, they did not share any directors, officers, or personnel policies, and they kept separate payrolls. They also operated two distinct businesses that were not dependent on each other. Although the court acknowledged that one might argue that Sovran exercised some control over Carlton Manor employees (it allegedly had the authority to fire nursing home employees), it was unclear if this power was the type of control that would indicate that Sovran and Carlton Manor were a single employer. Thus, while no one factor was dispositive in determining whether the entities were a single employer, McKinney could not meet any of the listed factors, and her first argument failed.

Regarding the defendants being separate employers, the Sixth Circuit reiterated that the factors in the WARN Act’s regulations, whether examined singly or taken together, did not show that Sovran was McKinney’s separate employer. There was no evidence that Sovran hired McKinney, fired McKinney, or otherwise treated her as one of its employees. Furthermore, there was no evidence that Sovran ordered the closing of the nursing home. The court explained that Sovran and Carlton Manor had a consultant-consultee relationship in which Sovran offered management advice to Carlton Manor, but never became the owner of the nursing home in the process. As such, Sovran was not liable to McKinney, or any other nursing home employees, under the WARN Act.

Practice Points

So what should a consultant do to protect itself from being deemed either a single employer with its consultee or a separate employer of its consultee’s employees? Follow Sovran’s example, and keep the factors that constitute a joint employment relationship in mind so that you actively avoid them.

  • Keep your business distinct and independent of your consultee.
  • Do NOT share ownership with your consultee.
  • Do NOT share common directors or officers with your consultee.
  • Do NOT share personnel policies, employee handbooks, and/or policy and procedure manuals.
  • Most importantly, do NOT exercise control over the terms and conditions of employment of your consultee’s employees or over the consultee’s business operations.

Parting of the Joint Employers: Trump DOL Withdraws Past Guidance on Independent Contractor Standards and Joint Employment Yesterday the U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced the Department of Labor’s withdrawal of guidance on independent contractors and joint employer liability issued in 2015 and 2016 by the Obama administration DOL. Generally, the guidance made more people employees rather than independent contractors. In particular, this guidance sought to (1) define more rigidly the situations in which a worker was found to be an employee under an “economic realities test” (even when an independent contractor relationship was intended), and (2) expand the joint employer doctrine taking into account “whether, as a matter of economic reality, the employee [was] economically dependent on the potential joint employer.”

The DOL’s roll back of Obama-era guidance signals an important shift in favor of employers, but no binding laws have changed. Employers should remember that the same statutes, regulations, and case law are still in force and the analysis applied to these issues remains the same, at least for the time being. In fact, the proper legal “test” for joint employer liability is currently on appeal in the D.C. Circuit in the Browning-Ferris case, with a decision expected later this year. For a more detailed look at the law on independent contractors and joint employers, see our previous blog posts on independent contractors and joint employment.  Be sure to keep an eye on how the DOL’s action affects these issues going forward.