Employment discrimination requires proof of an employer-employee relationship. This may seem like common sense, but there are many discrimination cases that turn on the legal definition of “employer.” Even if you think it is obvious that you are (or were) an employee, the employer and ultimately the courts may disagree.
Second Circuit Rejects Electrician's Race Discrimination Claim
The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals here in New York City recently addressed a case in which the plaintiff's employment status was in dispute. The plaintiff is an African-American man who works as a union electrician. The union had a contract with a university on Long Island–the defendant in this case–to “refer” its members when additional help was needed during major construction projects.
Accordingly, the union referred the plaintiff, who worked on a construction project for the defendant for about six months. One day while using an on-site bathroom, the plaintiff discovered “racist graffiti,” which he reported to the project foreman. The plaintiff alleges that he was subsequently laid off in retaliation for making this complaint.
The defendant denied the allegation. The university further maintained that the plaintiff was never an “employee,” and therefore could not maintain a federal employment discrimination lawsuit against it. The judge referred this issue to the jury, which ultimately returned a verdict for the defendant.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the judge, not the jury, should have made the legal determination regarding his employment status. The Second Circuit rejected this argument. It held that even if the plaintiff's employment status was a “question of law,”–i.e., a matter that should be decided by the judge–submitting the question to the jury did not warrant a new trial.
The Second Circuit also dismissed the plaintiff's contention that the judge improperly instructed the jury on how to resolve his employment status. The trial court relied on a 1989 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which spelled out 13 “non-exhaustive” factors that courts should use in deciding whether or not someone is an employee. The plaintiff argued these factors were “only intended to distinguish employees from independent contractors,” and the defendant never argued he was the latter. The Second Circuit held that in the absence of an “alternate test” for other contexts such as this one, the existing Supreme Court factors were applicable here.
Under those factors, the appeals court said there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find the plaintiff was not an employee of the defendant. For example, the testimony at trial established the plaintiff was “required to supply” some of his own tools at the job site, and that he exercised “significant control” over his own work, specifically the manner in which he accomplished certain general tasks assigned by the defendant. In addition, while the plaintiff was directly paid by the state for his work, the benefits he received were paid to his union.
Need Advice on an Employment Matter?
If you are the victim of discrimination or a hostile work environment, never assume that you are legally classified as an “employee.” An experienced New York employment law attorney can review your situation and advise you of your legal rights. Call White, Nisar & Hilferty, LLP. at 646.760.6493 to schedule a consultation with a member of our team today.