California, like several other states including Massachusetts and New York, has historically been harsh on employers which abuse the independent contractor designation, classifying individuals who are integrated into their business and function as employees as contractors for the purposes of avoiding tax and wage costs. In fact, Federal Express’ now decade-long battle with courts and agencies over its classification of drivers as independent contractors originates in part from the California state appellate decision in Estrada v. Fedex Ground Package System, Inc., 154 Cal. App. 4th 1 (2007). Now, the California legislature has added a new measure which, barring an unlikely veto, expands misclassification liability further.

Senate Bill 459, passed on September 8, 2011, would make it unlawful for any “person” to willfully misclassify an individual as an independent contractor—not just for a statutory “employer” to do so. This raises the specter of individual liability for misclassifications under the new law. The bill also imposes a penalty of $5,000 to $15,000 for each violation, with escalators to the $10,000 to $25,000 range based on the finding that a given person or company has engaged in a “pattern or practice” of violation. The law also provides that anyone found in violation must post a notice to employees and the public regarding the violation, potentially creating a “ripple effect” for further claims. 

Violations of 459 are predicated on “willful misclassification”, which is defined as “avoiding employee status for an individual by voluntarily and knowingly misclassifying that individual as an independent contractor.” This broad language, with the conjunctive requirements of voluntariness and knowledge, will create ambiguities (and of course litigation) in the wake of the law’s passage as to interpretation of this definition.

The difficult and expensive wage-and-hour compliance environment in California is not news. However, this new enactment, once it receives the likely approval of Governor Brown, would expand exposure both in terms of potentially liable parties (i.e., individuals) and the costs of misclassification. Any entity or individual conducting business in the State of California which has not yet analyzed its classification of workers as contractors is well advised to do so now.