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business law

Employer Basics: FLSA Classification of Employees

There is seldom a bad time for employers to reevaluate employee classifications. While some occasions are less optimal than others, for example, reevaluation upon an employer’s receipt of a complaint from the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”), employers should carve out time each year to scrutinize changes in employee assignments and relationships, along with other factors that impact classification.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) offers minimum wage and overtime pay protections to almost all workers in the United States. Assuming for the purposes of our discussion that an employer is subject to the FLSA, there are certain factors that necessarily impact the independent contractor versus employee-employer analysis. At base, “In the application of the FLSA an employee, as distinguished from a person who is engaged in a business of his or her own, is one who, as a matter of economic reality, follows the usual path of an employee and is dependent on the business which he or she serves.”1

The critical determination is, perhaps based upon the most nebulous standards – as the U.S. Supreme Court has, time and again, indicated that no single rule, test or standard, alone, dictates classification. Rather, the current standard applied by the Court looks, on the whole, at the “total activity or situation.”2 Factors included in this analysis are:

    • The extent to which the services rendered are an integral part of the principal’s business.
    • The permanency of the relationship.
    • The amount of the alleged contractor’s investment in facilities and equipment.
    • The nature and degree of control by the principal.
    • The alleged contractor’s opportunities for profit and loss.
    • The amount of initiative, judgment, or foresight in open market competition with others required for the success of the claimed independent contractor.
    • The degree of independent business organization and operation.3

The Court adds clarity by highlighting certain factors which are immaterial in determining whether there is an employment relationship.4 For example, the place where work is performed, the absence of a formal employment agreement, or whether an alleged independent contractor is licensed by State/local government are not considered to have a bearing on determinations as to whether there is an employment relationship.5 Additionally, the Supreme Court has held that the time or mode of pay does not control the determination of employee status.6 What happens next in the analysis is (typically) an evaluation of the relationship in which courts will consider the above-factors, while taking into account the industry, the nature of the work, and other situation-based considerations. Because these situations are routinely fact-intensive, it is worthwhile for employers to revisit classifications when making changes in their workforce.

Despite the oft-repeated refrain, “everyone in our industry classifies workers this way”, common industry practice is insufficient to excuse employer misclassification of employees – whether or not willful. Employers should be especially careful about taking cues from their competition. Simply because other employers in your industry classify employees as independent contractors, does not make it accurate. Equally unpersuasive in misclassification cases is an employee’s “agreement” to be misclassified, whether informally or via written employment agreement – even if the employment contract specifically defines an employee’s relationship to the employer as that of an independent contractor. Employers should also be aware that while an employee may be an independent contractor pursuant to state law or Internal Revenue Service standards, the FLSA may still create an employer/employee relationship where, for tax purposes or under state law, the analysis produces a different result.

What do you risk by failing to properly classify your employees? Employees may file complaints with the Wage and Hour Division of the DOL. Employees may also file private lawsuits to recover back pay, and liquidated damages, in addition to court and attorneys’ fees. The Wage and Hour Division of the DOL is also empowered bring its own enforcement actions. A two-year statute of limitations applies to actions to recover back pay. However, if a violation is “willful”, a three-year statute of limitations may apply.

The takeaway: Employers should make time before the end of the year to reevaluate their employee relationships and policies. Should you have any questions about this article or labor and employment law, please contact one of our employment lawyers.


1 “Fact Sheet 13: Employment Relationship Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)”, https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs13.htm (last accessed 9/12/2019).
2 Id.
3 Id.
4 Id.
5 Id.
6 Id.

Five Essentials To Bring an Idea to Life

Jared Burden leads a session in the business track at Valley TechCon 2019.

Jared Burden, Harrisonburg partner, led the kickoff session in the Growing Your Technology Business track at Valley TechCon September 25, held at the Hotel Madison and Shenandoah Conference Center in Harrisonburg, attended by about 160 company executives and entrepreneurs. His presentation laid out the five essential things a founding team needs to do immediately in order to turn an idea into a company. His slide deck is here.

If you’d like to have Jared reprise his presentation for your company or organization, please contact him. If you have questions about this topic, Valley TechCon or any issue of business law and growth, contact Jared or any of our business lawyers.

GreeneHurlocker Welcomes Business and Employment Attorney Laura Kight Musick

Laura Kight Musick, a business and labor and employment attorney, has joined the business, corporate, and regulatory law practice as Counsel at our firm, Eric Hurlocker announced today.

“Laura brings a well-developed set of skills in commercial and employment law which our clients increasingly need as their businesses grow and become more complex,” Hurlocker said. “Additionally, her significant litigation experience dovetails nicely with our firm’s growing regional regulatory practice,” he explained.

Laura practiced in Illinois and Virginia in her prior firms, and has counseled clients in employment matters, including hiring, severance and transition agreements, employment policies, and risk management and avoidance. In addition, she advised her business clients regularly about contracts, financing agreements, and corporate formation and governance.

“I’m delighted to be joining GreeneHurlocker and offering our clients the benefit of my employment law background while advising them as they grow and expand their businesses,” she says.

Laura graduated summa cum laude from the Honors Program at Murray State University in Kentucky, receiving a dual degree in English Literature and Philosophy. She earned her J.D. at the Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Indiana University, and was the inaugural recipient of the Baker and Daniels Public Interest Law Fellowship in 2008.

Knowing Where to Start

Clients wonder sometimes what they are getting into when they ask a lawyer to draft a contract. Maybe their fear is that their attorney will sharpen up his metaphorical pencil, lean his chair back to think deeply on life and law for an hour or two (on the clock), and then pull out the laptop and sit down to drafts things up from scratch, like a composer writing out each note to a (very boring) symphony. The client may fear that the lawyer views every deal is different, that everything about every deal is new every time, that everything needs to be tailored like a bespoke suit.

Every deal is different, it’s often said – I’ve heard myself say it a hundred times. That’s because the facts are different, and that’s because no two people and no two companies are alike or have the exact same priorities. But that doesn’t mean that two deals – say, two leases of refrigerated warehouse space, or two agreements for the purchase of the assets of small businesses — happening 500 miles apart (or 5000 or 5) — can’t be done with forms of contract that are 90% the same.

In fact, they probably should be done that way.

And your attorney shouldn’t be spending a whole lot of time going for the Pulitzer Prize for creative nonfiction and drafting that 90% (just a percentage used for illustration purposes) from scratch.

Unless we are speaking of some sort of business deal where the industry is utterly new, the parties are utterly idiosyncratic, and the risk tolerances are off the charts (one direction or the other), or all of the above, the same basic forms work across the board. I remember Internet 1.0 – the days of AOL and Pets.com — and the ways that lawyers were trying to draft “application service provider” contracts that expressed the concept of software programs being accessed over the Internet (what we now call Software as a Service (SaaS)). But even in that time, when the Internet was beginning to utterly change the way the world operated, the contracts were pretty much built right on top of software, consulting, joint venture and financing contracts that had been around for decades before that.

The majority of the text in a contract from 1975 (the year of the room-sized computer) – for example, events of default, remedies on default, representations and warranties, indemnification, assignment, the boilerplate at the end, and the general flow and sequence of the document — was essentially the same as the text in a contract drafted in 2000 (the year of the Pets.com sock puppet). The same is even more true for commercial real estate contracts, and even holds true for many types of intellectual property agreements.

And it goes without saying that 90% of the text in an accounting SaaS services agreement from 2017 is going to be the same as a payroll SaaS services agreement from 2019.

Anyone who tells it differently is trying to create mystery where there really should be none.

That’s my candid and honest observation How does this insight relate to you?

As outside corporate general counsel, under our OPENgc service offering, GreeneHurlocker is keenly focused on saving a client time and money while still delivering the legal assistance a client needs, when they need it. We avoid reinventing wheels. We’ve been practicing enough years, in widely varying industries and for companies of all sizes, to have an experienced, intuitive sense of what works and what doesn’t, and how the work we’ve done before may apply to the work we are doing for a client now. When a client picks up the phone and asks for an individual contract to be done or an entire deal to be quarterbacked, the client can rest assured we are not starting from scratch. Instead, we’re applying all the knowledge and work we have already done.

We’re here to guide you to the end of your deal. But we also know where to start.

Welcome Creighton Boggs, our First Spring Internship

Creighton-Elizabeth Boggs, a third-year student at the University of Richmond School of Law, has joined us as an intern/law clerk working across the firm’s practice areas, Eric Hurlocker announced recently.

“Creighton will be helping us with research, document preparation and client communications in our business, regulatory and energy law areas,” Eric said.

We’ve been growing steadily since being founded in 2012 by Eric and Brian and now have seven full time lawyers. We added a partner, Jared Burden, and new office in Harrisonburg in January of 2018.

Creighton is a pending graduate of the UR law school, and earned her political science bachelor’s degree magna cum laude at the University of South Carolina. Prior legal internships have placed her in the disAbility Law Center of Virginia and the South Carolina Environmental Law Center.

“I am particularly interested in demand response, energy storage and renewable energy,” she points out.

In law school, she has been Lead Articles Editor & Manuscript Editor of Public Interest Law Review, has served on the University of Richmond School of Law Honor Council and was recognized with the CALI Award for Excellence in Animal Law, among other accomplishments. A non-profit she started as a middle school student in South Carolina raised funds to help animals in need and earned her Presidential Service Awards from Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama.

“We’re delighted to be able to offer this inaugural firm internship to a law student as talented and accomplished as Creighton,” said Eric.

The internship runs through April 2019. We’d like to introduce you to Creighton if you come to the firm’s Richmond office to meet with our business lawyers or our energy lawyers.

Great Client, Great Coverage

The Washington Post’s coverage on Sunday of our good client Shenandoah Growers of Harrisonburg affirms their rise from a small, family-owned herb farm to a national leader in flavor-forward produce selling in 23,000 stores, including 16 of the country’s top 20 food retailers. Take a look at this profile in the Washington Post Business section last Friday. The company’s process innovations and tight focus made them a great subject for the Post and an ideal client for our OPENgc legal expertise. Relentless innovation and a profound understanding of the market are the main reasons they have been successful — and among the many reasons we have been glad to serve as their general counsel for several years

If you have any questions about the services we provide to entrepreneurial and growing businesses, contact Jared Burden or any of our Virginia business lawyers.

Three Things an Entrepreneur Should Keep In Mind

Entrepreneurs are fascinating to me. They are tied to the mast by their own natures. They can’t do anything else but what they are doing. They have to create. Even when the most they get from friends, family, and the guy on the next bar seat is a cocked eyebrow, maybe even a yawn.

Most of the entrepreneurs I deal with have long come to terms with the way they are wired. To them, it’s just who they are.

As amazing as they are in their inspiration and knowledge base, they (like all of us) can often use a bit of perspective. As general corporate counsel, that’s a place I can make an impact. It’s my job to scan broadly to see the forest my client is walking through, and keep a closer eye for the falling tree that might hit him on the head.

While I am not a huge believer that something as complex as entrepreneurship can be reduced to lists, there are a few home truths that have emerged for me in doing this over and over again. It’s in the form of advice I could give any person looking to forge a business where there was nothing before.

THINK IN THE ALTERNATIVE.

An entrepreneur needs to be able to analyze a challenge along at least two separate tracks — Pro and Con, Option A and Option B, these assumptions and those assumptions. This is easy for a lawyer to say; it’s what we’re trained to do. (“I did not kill that man! But if I did, this is why I should get off.”) But you know what? We all need to do it from time to time, and someone starting a business from scratch really needs to do it.
Bill is the founder of a company that is developing a family of apps for use within the construction industry. He has always believed that the vertical he needs to focus on as the way into the industry is commercial banking. It’s the insight that got him into this venture and it’s what he’s always assumed would work best. But a friend who’s given good advice on this venture before is telling him that it’s the building trades, people on trucks like plumbers and roofers, who would adopt the product first and then evangelize it within the construction world. Bill’s intuition has done him well in life to this point, and he’s loath to step away from it now. In fact, not just “going with his gut” feels like a rejection of who he is. But Bill needs to be able to mentally take a moment and imagine a world where he’s wrong and his friend is right. He should play out both scenarios – from past first principles, through the present, and into the future. And he should do it without kicking and screaming. It’s a waste of energy.

You won’t lose yourself if you think in parallel. Your brain is big enough to keep control of the whole process and bring everything back in when it’s decision time.

EMBRACE THE LIKELIHOOD SOMEONE ELSE IS DOING THE SAME THING

I’ve sat across the table from several company founders who have given me the look of a deer in the beams of an approaching car when I’ve told them my cursory Google search has shown others are already operating in their space. In these cases the entrepreneurs have gotten so romanced with their own idea, and so deep into the feedback loop created by unexamined assumptions of uniqueness, that they’ve failed to consider that others are already there, or nearby.

There really are few new ideas under the sun. (And I plan to write a piece about why ideas, alone, are pretty worthless.) It only makes sense that in a world full of smart people who, receiving the same inputs and experiencing the same things as you, would hit on your idea.

A new company is the most compelling when it is the first to market to solve a pain – or, better put, the first to (i) solve the pain (ii) with a sustainable business model. It can also be pretty compelling when there are folks already doing what you do, but you have some special angle on it – which may be no more genius than really good branding or deep industry knowledge. You need to know which of these scenarios – commodity or non-commodity – apply to you before you can really have any business entering the marketplace. They are very different realities.

You can’t know any of this before you fall out of love with your idea for a brief moment and survey the landscape with a sharp and skeptical eye.

REALIZE THAT YOU ARE YOUR BEST PRODUCT.

You will probably abandon your original business concept. It’s natural, somewhat inevitable, and completely healthy. It’s not failure. It’s life. We didn’t get dating right the first time we tried it. When we finished a term paper in college it probably was about something different than when we wrote the first word of it. Reflective light technology revealed that Da Vinci first had Mona Lisa looking off to the side, without her half-smile.

The original idea is what gets you into the game. Without the original idea you wouldn’t have had the reason to start the journey. But it will almost certainly not be what your product or service actually turns out to be.

What will still be there is you. Which, to me, means that you are the real product.

Smart early-stage investors know it, or come to know it if they see enough deal flow. There are a lot of ideas, a million slices of the pie of industry – lots of places to do good work. Lots of opportunity. But there are only so many people really who have the persistence and character to think as clearly as spring water while at the same time wading chest-deep in muck. These people are pretty rare.

It’s rare because it’s hard. The born entrepreneur has a leg up, because he really has no choice but to work to become that person. He may not know that’s what he’s doing, but he’s doing it nonetheless.

If you would like more information on these entrepreneurial essentials or have an issue in business law, please contact me or any one of our Virginia corporate law attorneys.