Sometimes, the answer to the simplest question isn’t so simple

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Sometimes, the simplest question can have an answer that isn’t so simple (and no, I am not thinking of Groucho Marx and his “who’s buried in Grant’s tomb question). Take, for example, the question of who is an employer. It might appear to be an easy answer. The individual or company that can hire or fire you, sets your hours or wages and tells you when to come into work and when you can go home. In employment law, the answer to this question is important because it determines who is liable in discrimination cases (only employers, not individuals can be liable for harassment or discrimination) or who must pay overtime or unpaid wages. And often the answer isn’t what it seems. At least that was the case for the California Supreme Court.

The court handed down an interesting decision that ruled that farm workers couldn’t seek unpaid wages from the two companies that marketed strawberries they picked for their boss, an independent contractor who went broke while they worked for him. The workers had claimed that the strawberry marketers and sellers essentially ran the operations contracting to be the “sole judge” of the crop’s quality and sending personnel into the field to confirm that the strawberries were ready for market. The judge rejected this argument and stated that it would extend liability in an unreasonably broad manner and could extend liability to grocery stores that purchased the strawberries and consumers who ate them.

On one hand, the decision surprised me because California is known as being a state that is very protective of employee rights. But on the other hand, courts are always concerned about the policy implications of their decisions, such as extending liability beyond the limits that we as a society as willing to bear.

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