April 01, 2007

Trucking Company’s Attempt to Establish Claimant as Independent Contractor Fails – Claimant Held to Be an Employee

April 01, 2007

Roberson v. Industrial Commission No. 102723

For obvious reasons, trucking companies have for years attempted to utilize documentary evidence to establish its drivers as independent contractors.  In most cases, the attempt fails.  In the recent Supreme Court case, the Supreme Court noticed that many of the facts pointed to Donald Roberson as an independent contractor but that since the evidence was contradicted, the Supreme Court held that the Industrial Commission’s finding that Roberson was an employee was not against the manifest weight of the evidence.

The Commission decision had been reversed by the trial court which in turn was reversed by the appellate court which reinstated the Commission decision.  Regarding the issue of whether Roberson was an employee, the appellate court noted that this determination is fact specific.  In its summary, the appellate court stated:

[t]he parties’ relationship contained elements of both independent contractor and employment status.  Factors such as the manner in which claimant was paid; the parties’ labeling of their relationship; claimant providing his own tractor and trailer; claimant paying for his own expenses, such as insurance and fuel; and the fact that claimant could refuse loads and choose his own routes indicate an independent contractor status.

On the other hand, there were significant elements of control present here.  Most importantly, the contract gave employer [sic] exclusive possession, use, and control of the equipment. Although the contract contained a caveat that such exclusive possession did not affect the parties’ legal relationship, the caveat is merely a labeling provision, which is a factor of lesser weight.  The fact of exclusivity and control remained.

A review of the 23-page opinion of the Supreme Court would seem to supply every possible argument used by both the trucking company and the driver that could exist in this type of business.  Professor Larson, in his treatise on Workers’ Compensation law, pointed out there is a growing tendency to classify owner-drivers of trucks as employees when they perform continuous service which is an integral part of the employer’s business.

Editor’s Note:

Our Commission is clearly following the trend described by Professor Larson.  This policy is commonly known as the “relative nature of the work” test.  In this case, P.I. & I. Motor Express utilized every method possible to establish an independent contractor relationship.  The court stated quite clearly that the Commission need not necessarily be bound by the terms of the documents but was entitled to ignore the terms of the lease when they seem to contradict the parties’ course of conduct.

Roberson v. Industrial Commission No. 102723, decided March 22, 2007

Frank J. Wiedner, Editor Wiedner & McAuliffe, Ltd One North Franklin, #1900 Chicago, IL 60606 (312) 855-1105