In a case previously discussed by my colleague Linda Gulledge, a federal judge in eastern Pennsylvania has rebuffed Uber once again in its attempt to rid itself of potentially expensive wage claims. In December 2016, as Linda described, federal judge Michael Baylson ordered “expedited discovery” on the issue of the compensability of UberBlack drivers’ on-call time. Fast forward about nine months. In a lengthy order, Judge Baylson has denied Uber’s partial motion for summary judgment seeking to kill the drivers’ “on-call” claims, though he allowed Uber an opportunity to refile the motion after complete discovery is conducted.
Judge Baylson noted that the suit, in which the drivers claim in part they did not receive minimum or overtime wages, raised questions about whether they were at work when logged into the company’s app. However, he also explained that he is reluctant to make any broad legal rulings on such a successful and transformative technology, noting that operators like Uber and competitor Lyft have “threatened the value and existence of taxicabs.” He later explained that given the drivers’ novel argument about FLSA on-call time, Uber’s app-based ridesharing creates a “disruptive business model” which is better addressed by the legislature and regulatory agencies. As he stated, if the matter continues to trial, a factual record must be fully fleshed out, complete with cross-examination, so the court is not making a decision based simply upon the papers filed with the court.
In laying out a list of undisputed facts, Judge Baylson acknowledged that Uber allows the drivers to conduct many personal activities while signed into the app. However, the drivers argue that Uber significantly restricts how drivers can operate while they’re logged on and waiting for a fare to show up on the app. They argue that time is fully compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Pennsylvania law, so their claim must be allowed to move forward. Ultimately, according to Judge Baylson, since it is unclear whether or not the drivers are employees, and since further discovery is necessary on both the on-call time and classification issues, the drivers’ claims must endure.
This case is one for gig economy businesses to keep an eye on, as Judge Baylson’s secondary audience – federal and state legislatures and regulatory agencies – is certain to have received his message, and changes are likely on the horizon. Which direction the law goes, and what changes are to be made, remain heated topics. All the more reason to stay informed and look to stay ahead of the curve.