The Missouri attorney general recently filed a complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (the “Commission“) alleging that a taxicab company discriminated against a taxicab driver in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA“). Specifically, the complaint alleged that the company refused to consider the driver’s application to become a taxicab driver because he had suffered a stroke, even though it was a job he was capable of performing. In defense of the complaint, the company argued in relevant part that the driver was not an employee of the company, but instead the driver was an independent contractor.
Importantly, the MHRA does not define the terms “employee” and “independent contractor.” Accordingly, courts look to how other courts have interpreted these terms in the past. In this case, the Commission looked to a prior decision by the Missouri Supreme Court in Howard v. City of Kansas City, 332 S.W.3d 772, 779-84 (Mo. banc 2011). In Howard, the court consulted dictionary definitions of “employee” and “employ”:
The word “employee” is commonly defined as “one employed by another, usually in a position below the executive level and usually for wages,” as well as “any worker who is under wages or salary to an employer and who is not excluded by agreement from consideration as such a worker.” WEBSTER’S THIRD NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY 743 (1993). To “employ” means “to provide with a job that pays wages or a salary or with a means of earning a living.” Id.
Similarly, the court looked to the following definition of “independent contractor” which the court had adopted in prior cases:
This Court has generally described an independent contractor as “one who contracts to perform work according to his own methods without being subject to the control of his employer except as to the result of his work.”
Applying these definitions, the Commission determined that the taxicab company’s drivers were not independent contractors because “the company owned the cars, the company trained the drivers in how to perform, the company’s dispatcher sent drivers to get fares based on where the drivers were and what direction they were headed, and driving a Laclede Cab taxi was a full-time job.” The Commission reached the same conclusion when it applied other common law factors, holding:
[D]riving a taxi was the regular business of Laclede Cab, the work was basically unskilled labor and definitely not a profession, there was no term to the contract of employment, and while the work was not done under direct supervision through the day, the drivers were directed by the dispatcher to pick up fares. We also note that the driver did not supply anything except to pay a nominal daily “lease” for use of the cab.
Finally, the Commission concluded that neither calling an employee an independent contractor nor having the drivers sign an “independent contractor contract,” which respondent had its drivers sign, created independent contractor status under Missouri law.
Ultimately, the Commission held that the company was an employer under the MHRA. The company thereafter appealed. On appeal, the company challenged, among other things, the Commission’s findings that the company’s drivers were employees and not independent contractors under Missouri law applicable in MHRA cases. In support of its argument, the company argued that there was no competent and substantial evidence to support the Commission’s conclusion because the company did not exert control over the means and manner in which its taxicab drivers performed their jobs because (1) the company did not have a financial motive to exert control because the drivers retained all fares collected in excess of the taxicab’s daily rental fee, and (2) the regulation of taxicab drivers’ on-the-job conduct is governed by the Metropolitan St. Louis Vehicle for Hire Code.
The Missouri appellate court did not find the company’s arguments persuasive and affirmed the decision of the Commission. In doing so, the court emphasized that the company’s appeal rested upon the extent of control it exercised over its drivers. And with respect to the company’s argument that it lacked a financial motive to exert control over its drivers, the company relied upon a non-Missouri case that focused on the lack of control over a driver’s performance. However, the Missouri appellate court made it clear in its decision that “Missouri cases have given less weight to lack of control over a driver’s performance and more weight to the facts that the putative employer owned the vehicles, and the drivers were integral to generating revenue.” Similarly, with respect to the taxicab company’s argument that the regulation of drivers’ on-the-job conduct is governed by the Metropolitan St. Louis Vehicle for Hire Code, the court noted that the company did not introduce the Code into evidence and thus the court could not consider it as evidence. Moreover, even if this ordinance had been in evidence and respondent had demonstrated that the ordinance, and not respondent, controlled the drivers’ performance, it would not be dispositive.
In the end, the Missouri Court of Appeals held that the Commission’s finding that the company’s taxicab drivers were employees and not independent contractors was supported by substantial and competent evidence based on the record as a whole.
A full copy of this decision can be found by clicking here.