Cue the balalaikas for Lara’s Theme, one of the most memorable leitmotifs in movie history. Today’s victim was singing, all right, after Dr. Zhivago patched him up, but this Lara’s theme went something like “”An employee, no contractor am I; so my rehab, workers comp now must buy…”
We’re not quitting our day job to become lyricists, but Lara – that is, Jose Lara – seemed to himself, his customers and the Lord to be an independent contractor right up until the time he fell off a restaurant customer’s roof while trimming bushes. Only then, in a rewrite of history that would have made Stalin blush, did Mr. Lara decide that he had been an employee all along, and thus was entitled to workers comp payments for the rest of his natural life.
Workers’ compensation covers employees, but not independent contractors, as an efficient and reasonable means of delivering benefits to employees injured on the job. It is intended to provide quick assistance to the injured and to free employers from costly and protracted litigation over claims. This is not to say that the system is intended to be an ATM for any worker with a claim. A claims board seeks to protect the system from bogus claims, and the employer – which is likely to see workers comp insurance premium take off like a skyrocket after a claim – have a lively interest in, as Rodney Dangerfield put it, keeping it honest.
In this case, both the claims board and the restaurant cried foul. It seemed Mr. Lara was in the business of doing odd jobs, and that the restaurant had hired him once, months before, to trim the bushes and perform light maintenance. The restaurant was hardly his only customer, and he arrived on the scene with his own tools. The owner told Mr. Lara what had to be done – the bushes trimmed – but left it to Lara to determine how best to do the job.
The workers comp board at first, rather inexplicably, held that Mr. Lara had been the restaurant’s employee, but the restaurant asked for reconsideration. Usually, seeking reconsideration is an exercise in futility. Few things in the known universe are as immovable as a judge who’s made up his or her mind. Asking a judge to rethink the matter and announce that he or she was wrong the first time around is like trying to teach a pig to sing – it wastes your time and ends up annoying the pig.
In this case, however, the board (maybe because it was not made up of real judges) revisited the issue and held that Mr. Lara was indeed an independent contractor. Mr. Lara’s lawyer promptly sought judicial review. We say his lawyer instead of Mr. Lara, because it isn’t at all clear the ingenuous injured workman was on board. In fact, he freely testified that he had a number of customers, that no one at the diner told him how to do his job, and that he didn’t consider himself an employee of the place.
It seems no one other than his lawyer did, either. On review, the court took as most important among the factors the fact that no one directed Mr. Lara in how to trim or when to trim. He wasn’t being paid hourly, but rather by the job. Everything about the relationship said “independent contractor.”
We start to sound drearisome, but how much easier it would have been for the restaurant if it had signed a simple agreement with Mr. Lara before he fell from the roof. It would have saved a mountain of litigation.
Lara v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, 182 Cal.App.4th 393 (2010). Mr. Lara, a 62-year old man, suffered injury to his head, lower back, neck, right shoulder, arm, hand, and thumb when he fell from a roof on March 11, 2000, while pruning bushes for the diner. Lara filed a workers’ compensation claim against Metro Diner’s then sole shareholder, Scott Broffman, personally and against Metro Diner. The diner leases space inside a hotel. Lara fell from the hotel’s roof. At the hearing, Lara testified that he has been gardening, painting, pipe fixing, and doing graffiti removal for 25 years. His clients are people who either know him or who find him on the street corner. He charges by the hour, but sometimes he contracts for the entire day. He usually does the same type of work but for different people each day. He has no employees and does not work out of an office or advertise.
The restaurant manager’s wife Patricia arranged for Lara to do gardening work at Metro Diner on two occasions. The first time, Patricia, who was Lara’s dentist’s secretary, had asked Lara what kind of work he did. When he told her he gardened, she stated that her husband owned a diner. She gave him an address and told him to go early in the morning so his work would not make the restaurant’s tables dusty. Upon his arrival, Lara was asked to trim the bushes along the roofline. The second time he went to Metro Diner, March 11, 2000, was about a year later.
Lara was paid in cash by the hour for his services at Metro Diner the first time, but was not paid the second time because he did not complete the work after his fall and he never sent a bill. Metro Diner did not take taxes out of his pay; Lara pays his own taxes. Lara and Patricia did not discuss the number of hours he would work. Nor did they discuss the price until he was finished with the work. The first time, Patricia paid him $15. They did not discuss when he would provide services in the future, only that she would contact him when services were needed.
On the second occasion about a year later, Patricia asked Lara to do the same job, i.e., trim the bushes along Metro Diner’s roofline. They did not discuss terms of employment, such as the number of hours, or the price he would be paid for the job. Lara had no plans to do any additional work after the second occasion, only that he would trim the bushes for Metro Diner when Patricia asked him to. Lara brought all the equipment he needed to do the job, including a trimmer, rake, a broom, and a blower, which tools he owns. He also brought a ladder that he borrowed from a friend. He arrived in his own truck. No one told him how to do his job “because he already knew how to do his job.” Patricia did not tell him to bring an assistant or how long the job would take. She did not tell him to arrive on Saturday at 7:00 a.m., just to go early because the diner opened between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m.
The Board that Lara was an independent contractor and thus not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Lara did not testify during trial that he was an employee of Metro Diner. Rather, he testified he handled his own taxes and contracted with numerous individuals to perform specific jobs. Also, the Board noted Lara’s statement in his civil action against the hotel, filed after his injury, that “I am self-employed as a gardener.” However, the Board recognized that the distinguishing characteristic of an employer is the power to control the details of the work and methods of performance. On that point, the Board found “no evidence that Metro had the power to control the details of [Lara’s] work in pruning the bushes or the method by which he performed that task.”
Held: Lara was an independent contractor. The Workers’ Compensation Act extends only to injuries suffered by an ’employee’ which arise out of and in the course of his ’employment. California law holds that an “independent contractor” is any person “who renders service for a specified recompense for a specified result, under the control of his principal as to the result of his work only and not as to the means by which such result is accomplished.”
The Court held that the principal test of an employment relationship is whether the person to whom service is rendered has the right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired….’; The existence of such right of control, and not the extent of its exercise, gives rise to the employer-employee relationship. Other secondary factors, derived largely from the Restatement Second of Agency, include, inter alia, “(1) whether or not the worker is engaged in a distinct occupation or an independently established business; (2) whether the worker or the principal supplies the tools or instrumentalities used in the work, other than tools and instrumentalities customarily supplied by employees; (3) the method of payment, whether by time or by the job; (4) whether the work is part of the regular business of the principal; (5) whether the worker has a substantial investment in the business other than personal services; (6) whether the worker hires employees to assist him.” Two additional factors are whether the parties believe they are creating the relationship of employer-employee; and the degree of permanence of the working relationship.
Applying the criteria, the Court found that Metro Diner did not possess the right of control and the factors do not otherwise weigh in favor of employee status. Lara was engaged to produce the result of trimming the bushes, the Court said. Neither party presented evidence that Metro Diner had the power to control the manner or means of accomplishing the pruning. The means and manner to accomplish the result of pruning were neither discussed nor were part of the agreement.
The Court observed that its conclusion that Lara was an independent contractor at the time of his injury is further supported by other criteria. “First, Lara performed this work as part of his own occupation as a gardener, which he had been doing independently for approximately 25 years. Not only did Lara have many clients, but Patricia did not ask him to perform any service other than pruning the bushes. Second, Lara supplied the equipment he used for the job. Such tools were not ones that a restaurant would have. Third, Lara had a substantial investment in his business such as his equipment. Although Lara does not advertise, he has several different clients who either pick him up from the street corner or who telephone him to perform specific jobs. Fourth, he was not hired by the day or hour, or even on a regular basis. Payment was only discussed after the work was complete. Sometimes Lara charged by the hour and sometimes by the job and so Lara was paid on a job-by-job basis, with no obligation on the part of either Metro Diner or Lara for work in the future. Taxes were not taken out of the money he was paid. Lara estimates and pays his own taxes. Fifth, no date for Lara’s return was specified after the first time he pruned bushes for Metro Diner. Lara understood only that he would be contacted when his services were needed, with the result that he worked for a circumscribed period of time with no permanence whatsoever in his working relationship with Metro Diner. Thus, Lara’s profit or loss depended on his scheduling, the time taken to perform the services, and his investment in tools and equipment.
The Court noted that the criteria were not to be applied mechanically as separate tests, but “are intertwined and their weight depends often on particular combinations … [T]he process of distinguishing employees from independent contractors is fact specific and qualitative rather than quantitative.” Although the workers’; compensation statutes are to be construed liberally in favor of awarding compensation, the Court said, “no amount of liberal construction can change the balance of evidence here. Nor does our conclusion that Lara was an independent contractor defeat the purposes behind the workers’ compensation system. Lara had control over his work and safety and there was no evidence that he could not have spread the cost of insurance against work-related injuries through fees he charged for his services.”
– Tom Root