Judge grants partial class certification in case against courier service

By Jon Campisi | Mar 9, 2012

A federal judge in Philadelphia has granted partial class certification for plaintiffs in a civil suit alleging the courier service they work or worked for improperly classified them as independent contractors and not employees.

Plaintiffs Elizabeth Sherman, Mohamad Abushalieh, Anthony Sturgis and William Walsh, delivery drivers for American Eagle Express, Inc., a courier company that delivers financial and medical products to banking institutions, hospitals and pharmacies in the mid-Atlantic region, filed a class action lawsuit against the company on behalf of themselves and those similarly situated.

The proposed class is those who worked as delivery drivers from May 2008 to the present.

The suit seeks declaratory relief, as well as damages for violations of Pennsylvania’s Wage Payment and Collection Law, Minimum Wage Act, and Workers’ Compensation Act.

The plaintiffs allege that the fact that the company made the workers sign a form contract, the Transportation Brokerage Agreement, which allowed AEX to control the manner, method and means of each drivers’ work, meant an employer-employee relationship had been created under Pennsylvania law.

They claim that the company had an incentive to classify the workers as independent contractors, namely because it would be able to defray the costs of the delivery equipment – by requiring each driver to purchase his or her own truck, vehicle insurance, work phone and uniform – and to avoid the financial burden of treating its drivers as employees entitled to protection under Pennsylvania’s employment laws.

This ran contrary to the fact that the plaintiffs were supposedly hired as independent contractors.

In a memorandum opinion signed March 8, U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez ruled that class certification would be granted only on the Wage Payment and Collection Law claim and not on the Minimum Wage Act claim.

Sanchez said the court disagreed with the argument by AEX that class certification shouldn’t be granted because the plaintiff’s exhibits are not competent to support class certification because they are too vague and not authenticated, some fall outside the proposed class period, and the plaintiffs failed to show they are relevant or how they apply to the putative class.

“Evidence in support of class certification need not be admissible at trial,” Sanchez wrote.

The main issue for the plaintiffs’ WPCL and MWA claims, Sanchez wrote, is whether the class members were appropriately classified as independent contractors.

“If evidence common to the class is capable of resolving whether AEX drivers are employees or independent contractors, then Plaintiffs’ claims are suitable for class certification,” the judge wrote.

Sanchez ruled that while AEX argues that individual inquiries must be made into the number of hours worked and pay deductions taken, “the need for individualized damages calculations is not a reason to deny class certification.

“This is especially true where, as here, damages such as deduction reimbursements and backpay are capable of simple calculation.”

Sanchez wrote that AEX’s potential liability under the Wage Payment and Collection Law “arises from its failure to provide certain benefits to its drivers, who, if found to be AEX employees, are entitled to such benefits.

“AEX cannot claim to have withheld these benefits to all its drivers based on a good faith belief they owed some debt to independent contractors, irrespective of the driver’s individual circumstances,” the judge wrote.

While Sanchez ruled the plaintiff’s satisfied the federal requirements as to their WPCL claim in order to proceed with class certification, he did not find the same for their Minimum Wage Act claim.

Sanchez said in deciding whether AEX’s delivery drivers were employees under the MWA, the court would have had to make an individualized examination into each class member’s relationship with AEX.

“For instance, this Court would have to separately determine if each class member depended upon AEX for his or her continued employment, as there is no common evidence that all class members are in such a position that they cannot ‘offer their services to many different businesses and organizations,’” the judge wrote. “The need for this kind of individualized inquiry renders the MWA claims unsuitable for class-wide treatment.”

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