Uber argues in court that drivers want independence, flexibility

The ride-hailing company received support from over 400 drivers and a law professor

Uber Technologies gathered the support of over 400 drivers across California and a law professor to back its argument in court that its platform gives its contractors the flexibility and independence they want.

The ride-hailing company faces a proposed class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which aims to show that its drivers are indeed employees under the applicable legal standard, and not independent contractors. A reclassification of drivers as employees could potentially increase the costs for the company in terms of reimbursement of expenses and employee benefits.

In a filing Thursday, Uber said the three complainants failed to establish that their own claims are typical of those that might be asserted by the over 160,000 drivers they seek to represent, as they signed only a handful of the 17 operative service agreements between Uber and drivers in California, and their experiences with the company's app differ considerably from many or most drivers.

"In sum, the putative class consists of more than 160,000 individuals who have little or nothing in common, other than their use of the Uber App in California at some point over the past six years," Uber said in the filing.

Similar disputes to the one between Uber and the three drivers are playing out in court in a number of instances where workers have sued app-based companies that connect users to services, claiming that they are employees and not independent contractors.

The suits all aim to be class actions, according to Shannon Liss-Riordan, who is an attorney in the action against Uber and other companies like Postmates, Shyp, Caviar and Washio. The lawsuits claim that, although classified as independent contractors, the people have to follow detailed requirements imposed on them and are subject to termination.

Shyp recently decided that its couriers would now be considered as employees with benefits, though it said the decision had not been prompted by any legal action filed against the company.

But Uber argued in court that the plaintiffs were taking positions that were contrary to the wishes of the other people they claim to represent, "who do not want to be employees and view Uber as having liberated them from traditional employment."

It said it licenses the Uber app or "lead generation platform" to "partners" who may be third-party businesses that employ or contract with drivers, and individuals that transport riders. "Drivers who use the Uber App may use it as much or as little as they want, and accept as many or as few ride requests as they want, whenever they want," Uber wrote.

In their testimonies, drivers backed the Uber stand, with one person, for example, stating that the arrangement ensured that she would never again have to miss out "on so many of [her] daughter's firsts."

Justin McCrary, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, submitted as an independent expert witness retained by Uber's counsel that drivers use the platform in a variety of ways, under a variety of working relationships, so that "many current drivers who have used the Uber App for referrals would be harmed if it were commonly found that the use of the Uber App turned every driver into an employee of Uber."

Liss-Riordan said she was not surprised by Uber's arguments, including its claim that many drivers like working for Uber and the flexibility it provides. The law is clear that the relevant question is not whether people like the practice at issue but whether it is legal or not, and the mere fact that drivers can choose their hours does not make them independent contractors, she added.

Over a thousand drivers have contacted the law firm and are unhappy with how Uber has treated them and feel they have been taken advantage of, Liss-Riordan wrote in an email. "We look forward to bringing these arguments to the court in August," she added.

Uber has had its share of setbacks on this issue. In March, the court dismissed Uber's motion for summary judgment that the drivers were independent contractors. The California Labor Commission ruled last month that a driver of Uber was an employee and not a contractor, when driving for the company, and was hence entitled to reimbursement on certain expenses. The ride-hailing company said it had appealed the decision.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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