New York’s Highest Court: No “Stretch” in Yogi’s Independent Contractor Classification

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Seyfarth Synopsis: The New York Court of Appeals recently rejected the narrow view of the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board and found that substantial evidence did not support a finding that certain yoga instructors were misclassified as independent contractors.

As wage and hour “gurus” are aware, the “mantra” of most federal and state agencies these days is a restrictive view of independent contractor status. Accordingly, in a rare yet welcome decision that we hope will yield some good “karma,” the New York Court of Appeals held in Matter of Yoga Vida NYC, Inc. that substantial evidence did not warrant the Appeals Board’s finding certain yoga instructors were misclassified as independent contractors.

In Yoga Vida, a yoga studio employed both staff instructors (who were classified as employees) and non-staff instructors (who were classified as independent contractors). The State’s Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board held that the non-staff instructors were misclassified, applying a strict reading of the employer-employee test under the New York Labor Law.

The Court of Appeals held that substantial evidence did not warrant the Appeals Board’s finding. The Court relied upon the facts that the non-staff instructors:

  • Were paid only if a certain number of students attend their classes (unlike staff instructors, who were paid regardless of whether anyone attends a class);
  • Had no restrictions on where they could teach, and were free to inform Yoga Vida students of classes they teach at other studios so the students can follow them; and
  • Were not required to attend meetings or receive training.

Rejecting the position of the Appeals Board and the dissenting judge, the court held that the above factors outweighed the fact that Yoga Vida:

  • Inquired if the instructors had proper licenses, published the master schedule on its web site, and provided the space for the classes;
  • Generally determined what fee was charged, collected the fee directly from the students, and provided a substitute instructor if the non-staff instructor was unable to teach a class and could not find a substitute; and
  • Received feedback about the instructors from the students.

In reaching this decision, the Court held that, “The requirement that the work be done properly is a condition just as readily required of an independent contractor as of an employee and not conclusive as to either.”

Although it is certainly a welcome decision for employers, it is not time to say “Namaste” just yet. The mere fact that a worker is labeled an “independent contractor” and willing to work as such (without receiving minimum wage or an overtime premium) is not enough to remove the worker from the coverage of wage-hour laws. Careful compliance for employers in classifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees remains as important as ever. Om.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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