Uber drivers’ wage suits won’t be consolidated in single forum
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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Uber drivers’ wage suits won’t be consolidated in single forum

By Lisa Milam-Perez, J.D. Concluding that centralizing seven misclassification suits against Uber, currently pending in seven different district courts, would be no more convenient to the parties and witnesses and would not “further the just and efficient conduct of the litigation,” the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation declined to combine the cases in a single forum. Misclassification cases against the rideshare company are clearly on the upswing; since the motion to centralize these lawsuits was first filed, at least ten more potentially related actions have emerged (In re: Uber Technologies, Inc. Wage and Hour Employment Practices Litigation, February 4, 2016, Vance, S.). Employees? All of the pending lawsuits under consideration by the JPML arose from drivers’ claims they are Uber’s employees, not independent contractors, and as such, they should be recompensed for various business expenses and entitled to passenger gratuities that Uber has improperly withheld. Despite their seemingly common plight, the plaintiffs were not of one mind as to centralization. The plaintiffs in two potentially related actions supported the motion, along with another set of plaintiffs in a separate case, asking to centralize the litigation either in California or Texas. On the other hand, the plaintiffs in the O’Connor v. Uber Technologies litigation in California—perhaps the most closely watched among the “gig” economy employment cases currently playing out—opposed centralization and requested they be excluded or that the cases be centralized in their forum. So did plaintiffs in five potentially related actions. Uber, for its part, opposed centralization as well and also requested in the alternative that the O’Connor litigation be excluded. (So did Hirease, Inc., the background screener that has been named a defendant in two actions involving Uber’s background check practices.) Varying standards. While there are common factual issues involved regarding the plaintiffs’ status as independent contractors and Uber’s challenged business practices, the standards for determining the drivers’ employment status vary considerably from state to state, the panel observed, “and involve a broad range of factors which require consideration of distinct aspects of the alleged employer’s relationship with plaintiffs.” Given the state-specific legal and factual inquiries involved, the cases would be unsuitable for centralized pretrial proceedings, the panel concluded. Further, the seven cases under consideration here involve non-overlapping certified and putative state-specific classes, “which are distinct from nearly all of the putative classes in the related actions before the panel.” Better to keep the actions pending where the plaintiffs and putative class members work, and where the witnesses and relevant documents will be found. Voluntary coordination is best. Under the circumstances here, “voluntary coordination is preferable to centralization,” the panel said. The same counsel represents plaintiffs in six of the seven cases and two related actions—all of which are “in their infancy,” the panel noted, and, to the extent that pretrial proceedings overlap, the defendants were amenable to coordinating the litigation informally, which was practicable here. Moreover, the O’Connor litigation—the only case at hand involving different counsel—was almost at the end of pretrial proceedings; class discovery is complete, a statewide class had been certified, there were only three months left of merits discovery, and the case was slated for a June trial. “This substantial procedural disparity further weighs against centralization.” Accordingly, the JPML denied the motion for centralization.

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