In a counteroffensive filled with driver testimonials, expert witnesses and a highly produced video, Uber on Thursday filed a motion in a California court to oppose the certification of a class-action lawsuit that spotlights the work status of drivers for the ride-hailing service. The plaintiffs assert that they are employees, and they are seeking reimbursement for expenses and what they say were improperly withheld tips.
The case speaks to the heart of Uber’s business model, in which the company treats the more than 160,000 people who drive for the service in the United States as independent contractors. The classification means Uber does not need to pay drivers’ payroll taxes or apply minimum wage and overtime laws to them. It also lets Uber bypass paying for benefits like health care or vehicle upkeep in some states.
In its motion, Uber said that its driver base was incredibly diverse and that the handful of drivers who filed the lawsuit should not represent the wishes of the whole.
“The reality is that drivers use Uber on their own terms: they control their use of the app,” Uber said in a statement. “It’s why there’s no typical driver — the key question in this case. And why no three people can ever represent the interests of so many different drivers.”
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Labor lawyers said that Uber’s argument was flawed, and that the heart of the class-action certification case hinged upon how much uniformity there was in Uber’s treatment of its drivers when they were working for the company — not how much uniformity there was among the drivers themselves.
“The employer will try to draw out as many distinctions as possible between the Uber drivers,” said Rachel Bien, a labor lawyer who has litigated many class-action cases on behalf of plaintiffs and who is not involved in the Uber case. “But certain policies and procedures appear to be common to most drivers.”
She added that the Supreme Court precedent that Uber’s legal team invoked to help it defeat the class certification, Walmart Stores v. Dukes, was a gender discrimination case that had little application in this context.
In that case, the company gave individual managers discretion over pay and promotion decisions, allowing it to claim with some justification that there was no uniform policy. Given that Uber drivers are challenging Uber’s explicit policy of classifying them as independent contractors, the company may find it harder to make a similar claim, though it may be able to argue that certain practices were not applied uniformly.
The Walmart case “did raise the bar on what it takes to certify a class,” Ms. Bien said. “We operate in a post-Walmart era.”
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The issue of Uber drivers’ work status has long been controversial. In June, the California Labor Commissioner’s office ruled that Uber should have classified Barbara Ann Berwick, a former Uber driver, as an employee instead of a contractor; Uber was ordered to pay Ms. Berwick roughly $4,000 in back expenses and associated costs. The ruling does not apply beyond Ms. Berwick’s case, and it could be altered if Uber succeeds in an appeal.
The classification hearing is scheduled for Aug. 6 in the Federal District Court for the Northern District California in San Francisco, where Uber and the plaintiffs in the suit will present arguments to Judge Edward M. Chen, who is presiding over the case.