The Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal has held that painters may be treated as independent contractors if they bring some of their own tools, control their own schedules, and make decisions on how to complete the work for which they have been hired.
In Ocampo v. Maronge, No. 17-CA-403 (December 27, 2017), plaintiffs Javier Ocampo and Dennis Ordonez asserted claims for unpaid wages following discharge pursuant to the Louisiana Wage Payment Act (LWPA). A claim under the LWPA requires that the claimant be an “employee.”
Ocampo and Ordonez were hired by Nicole Maronge to perform painting on a residential property in Napoleonville, Louisiana. Maronge claimed that Ocampo and Ordonez were hired to work from Tuesday February 25, 2014, through Friday February 28, 2014. Ocampo and Ordonez testified that they were not informed of an initial deadline to complete the job.
Maronge supplied Ocampo and Ordonez with a ladder, as well as other materials to complete the job, including “sheetrock, paint, primer, caulk, tape, spackling and other similar items.” Ocampo and Ordonez supplied some of their own tools, including brushes, rollers, buckets, and drop cloths.
After arriving at the Napoleonville property, Ocampo and Ordonez learned the job would entail more work than painting, including floor and garage demolition. By the end of February 28, 2014, they informed Maronge that they were not finished with the job, but that they could complete the job by March 2, 2014, with the assistance of an additional laborer. Maronge agreed. Ocampo and Ordonez thereafter worked through March 2, 2014, and completed the job except for the trim painting. They did not return to the jobsite on March 3, 2014, and Maronge hired other laborers to finish the job.
Ocampo and Ordonez claimed in their lawsuit that Maronge never paid them for the hours they worked for her. Specifically, they claimed they were each owed $17 an hour for 62 hours worked on the Napoleonville property, as well as penalties and attorneys’ fees resulting from Maronge’s failure to timely pay their wages.
Maronge did not dispute that Ocampo and Ordonez were owed money for the work they performed. Instead, Maronge disputed the hourly rate and number of hours they worked. Maronge claimed that they were each owed $15 per hour for only 45 hours worked. Maronge also disputed that plaintiffs were her “employees” under Louisiana law.
After discovery, Ocampo and Ordonez filed a motion for partial summary judgment urging the court to find that they were Maronge’s “employees” as a matter of law. The district court denied their motion. Thereafter, the matter proceeded to trial, where the district court found Ocampo and Ordonez to be independent contractors. They subsequently appealed the court’s denial of their motion for partial summary judgment, as well as the court’s judgment finding them to be independent contractors, amongst other issues.
The Louisiana Fifth Circuit’s Analysis
On appeal, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed both rulings, emphasizing the independent nature of the plaintiffs’ jobs. The court explained that the essence of the employer-employee relationship is the “employer’s right to control the employee.” As a result, the court declared that to prevail on their motion for partial summary judgment, Ocampo and Ordonez were required to prove that the degree of control Maronge exerted over them rose to the necessary level to create the employer-employee relationship.
The court applied the five factor employee-employer test first enumerated by the Louisiana Supreme Court in the seminal Hickman v. South Pacific Transport Company case from 1972. The court asked: (1) whether there was a valid contract between the parties, (2) whether the plaintiffs used nonexclusive means in accomplishing the work, (3) whether the defendant controlled how the work would be performed, (4) whether there was a specific price for the project, and (5) whether the work was for a certain time or subject to termination by either party at their will.
In affirming the denial of the plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment and the district court’s conclusion that the plaintiffs were independent contractors, the court enumerated the following facts to support its conclusion: the plaintiffs set their own schedules, Maronge did not direct the plaintiffs in how to perform their work, the plaintiffs supplied some of their own tools and techniques, and Maronge was not present on the jobsite. At the same time, the court deemphasized or ignored the ways in which Maronge directed the work to be performed, the tools Maronge provided for the job, the complexity of the actual work performed, and the March 2 deadline for completion of the work that the plaintiffs acknowledged but ignored.
As a result, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit declared that the district court was not “manifestly erroneous or clearly wrong” in classifying the plaintiffs as independent contractors.
Ocampo indicates that the sophistication of work performed may not control the existence of an employer-employee relationship. In this instance, the plaintiffs were only painting and demolishing property and the majority of their “tools” were provided by the defendant. Nonetheless, the court found the plaintiffs to be independent contractors. As a result, the LWPA did not apply and thus penalties and attorneys’ fees for late payment of earned wages were not recoverable.