Schrödinger’s Cat? Ninth Circuit Disrupts Trucking Industry with Contractor Misclassification Ruling

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Have you heard of Schrödinger’s cat? It’s not a real cat, like Felix or Brian Setzer. It’s a hypothetical, seemingly impossible cat that exists only in the world of quantum physics. Schrödinger’s cat refers to a thought experiment in which a cat in a box is simultaneously alive and dead, until you open the box and observe the cat. Then, stubborn as cats are, it will be only one or the other – and that’s when you realize you prefer dogs anyway.

In a ruling last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit tried to give the trucking industry Schrödinger’s cat.

The issue was whether California’s infamous ABC Test applies to the trucking industry. The answer now is both yes and no, depending on where you look.

If you’re in California, the Ninth Circuit says yes, the ABC Test applies to the trucking industry. Under the ABC Test, now part of California’s Labor Code, most workers are classified as employees, not independent contractors, unless the work they perform is “outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.” (There’s more to the ABC Test, but that’s Part B, the hardest part to meet.)

In the trucking industry, it’s hard to argue that owner-operator truckers retained by a trucking company are performing work that is outside the usual course of the trucking company’s business. The ABC Test would likely reclassify most owner-operators as employees. The California Trucking Association brought a lawsuit in 2018, arguing that the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (FAAAA) preempts this California law from being applied to trucking. The FAAAA preempts state laws “relating to a price, route or service of any motor carrier … with respect to the transportation of property.” Cal Trucking argued that applying the ABC Test and reclassifying owner-operators as employees would affect the prices, routes and services provided.

Last week, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the ABC Test is a “generally applicable” law that does not sufficiently affect prices, routes or services to be preempted. California’s ABC Test therefore applies to trucking and is not preempted by the FAAAA.

Now remember the cat – both alive and dead?

If you’re in Massachusetts, the answer to the same question is no, the ABC Test does not apply to trucking. In 2016, the First Circuit ruled that the FAAAA preempts Massachusetts’ ABC Test (which is the same as California’s) because of its effect on prices, routes and services when applied to trucking.

So what happens now? How can one federal law simultaneously mean two different things?

There are three ways this can play out:

  • The full Ninth Circuit might rehear the case and could reverse its ruling (which was a 2-1 split) to conform with the First Circuit’s view.
  • The ruling might stay as it is, meaning that the interpretation of a federal law (the FAAAA) is different in California and Massachusetts, even though their state ABC Tests are the same.
  • The Supreme Court will take the case and resolve the circuit split.

I grew up in Miami, where they had greyhound racing, which you can bet on. I don’t think there’s anywhere you can go and bet on cats. But if I were a betting man on this one, I’d wager that the Supreme Court weighs in at some point.

The owner-operator model in the trucking industry is so well established and has been permitted for so long under federal law that it seems impossible for the Supreme Court to allow the FAAAA to mean two different things in two different states.

And what about the rest of the country?

The Third and Seventh Circuits have ruled that the FAAAA does not preempt state wage and hour laws when applied to trucking, but those courts were not considering strict ABC Tests like those reviewed by the First and Ninth Circuits. The ABC Test aims to reclassify most contractors as employees; it is no ordinary wage and hour law. More states are considering adopting strict ABC Tests and, in those states, we don’t know whether the FAAAA would preempt state classification law for truckers.

In other words, for most of the country, the cat is both alive and dead, and we won’t know which it is until we look. Unfortunately for tens of thousands of truckers, this is not a mere thought experiment. The disruption to the industry is massive, and the sooner we get a clear answer, the better it will be for everyone. Except maybe the cat.

This post originally appeared on WhoIsMyEmployee.com.

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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