Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Juries can decide if Title VII plaintiff was an independent contractor

Title VII offers employees broad protections against discrimination, but the plaintiff must be an employee. Independent contractors have no rights under Title VII. In this case, the plaintiff sued SUNY Stony Brook for discrimination, but the jury said he was an independent contractor. The Court of Appeals affirms.

The case is Knight v. SUNY Stony Brook, decided on January 29. Plaintiff is an electrician who worked at the college. He reported racist graffiti in a bathroom at his worksite. Then he got fired. This could give you a racial discrimination case under Title VII, but the initial hurdle is whether he was even an employee. The jury was asked that question, and it said he was not. Knight says it was improper to leave this issue to the jury, that it was a question for the trial court.

When is someone an employee as opposed to an independent contractor? You can be a contractor in name but actually an employee, depending on the following factors. The main question is control over the worker. We ask:

the hiring party’s right to control the manner and means by which the product is accomplished[;] . . . the skill required; the source of the instrumentalities and tools; the location of the work; the duration of the relationship between the parties; whether the hiring party has the right to assign additional projects to the hired party; the extent of the hired party’s discretion over when and how long to work; the method of payment; the hired party’s role in hiring and paying assistants; whether the work is part of the regular business of the hiring party; whether the hiring party is in business; the provision of employee benefits; and the tax treatment of the hired party.
We call this the Reid factors, named after a Supreme Court ruling, Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, 490 US 730 (1989). Here's the question: can this issue be plopped in the jury's lap? The Court of Appeals (Winter, Lynch and Droney) answers that in the affirmative. The parties disputed the facts relating to the Reid factors. Under Kirsch. v. Fleet Street, 148 F.3d 149 (2d Cir. 1998), the jury can resolve these issues. Kirsch guides this case, and the Second Circuit holds that "a trial court does not commit error by submitting the question of whether the plaintiff was the defendant's employee to the jury, whether by general verdict or by special question."

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