Drivers Sue Uber Over Alleged Coercion to Support Ballot Measure

As the Nov. 3 election is approaching, it seems that Uber is pushing for a ballot measure, Proposition 22, in California that it launched with Lyft and DoorDash that would exempt it from California Assembly Bill 5 (AB-5), which went into effect in January of this year. AB-5 is a landmark law that codifies and clarifies the Dynamex standard for the definition of employee; this law requires companies to hire workers as employees, not independent contractors, providing drivers with various employment rights and benefits. On Thursday in the California State Superior Court in San Francisco County, plaintiffs Benjamin Valdez, Hector Castellanos, Worksafe, and Chinese Progressive Association filed a class-action complaint against Uber for its alleged coercion to get drivers to support Proposition 22.

The plaintiffs are Uber drivers and two California non-profits that help protect workplace rights, who claimed that they and the putative class have been “unlawfully pressured” by Uber “to support its Yes on Prop 22 campaign – an effort funded by Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash with the goal of stripping gig economy workers like Valdez and Castellanos of their rights as employees under the California Labor Code and Industrial Commission Wage Orders.” Moreover, the plaintiffs stated that California law “prohibit[s] employers from pressuring, coercing, or otherwise interfering with their employees’ right to engage in, or refrain from engaging in, political activities,” which would include voting as it relates to Proposition 22. Specifically, California’s Labor Code “forbids employers from exploiting economic power by ‘controlling or directing’ the political activities of their employees’” or “from using the threat of discharge or loss of employment to coerce, or attempt to coerce or influence any employee’s free choice regarding whether to engage or refrain from engaging in ‘any particular course or line of political action or political activity.’” However, the plaintiffs alleged that Uber has violated this law by pressuring its drivers to support the ballot measure.

Specifically, the plaintiffs contended that “Uber has taken advantage of its raw economic power and its exclusive control over communications” through its app. In particular, Uber allegedly “not only directed its drivers to vote for Proposition 22, but has also asked them to support the Yes on Prop 22 campaign by submitting video messages and statements that conform to Uber’s political position and by pressuring the drivers to submit statements of support for Proposition 22 and to respond to surveys regarding their voting preferences by stating they support Prop 22.” Consequently, Uber purported conduct has allegedly caused “drivers to fear retaliation by Uber if they do not support Uber’s political preference and may induce many drivers to falsely state that they support” Proposition 22, implying that they allegedly do not want these employment rights. Additionally, the plaintiffs proffered that Uber has “intentionally skewed survey results” as a result of this purported conduct, which allegedly falsely claims that drivers support this ballot measure.

According to the plaintiffs, “[t]hrough public comments and extensive, repeated messaging that is triggered every time a driver logs on to Uber’s mandatory driver app, Uber has threated plaintiffs and class members that if they do not support Uber’s political efforts regarding Proposition 22, those drivers will lose their jobs or suffer other adverse work-related consequences.” Moreover, the plaintiffs averred that Uber is relying on false statements, misrepresentations, and threats to get drivers to support Proposition 22. For example, Uber allegedly claimed that “California drivers will lose their jobs unless Proposition 22 passes.” Specifically, Uber stated that it would cease its operations in California, but the plaintiffs claimed that Uber could continue operations with properly classified employees. Additionally, drivers proffered that Uber stated that it may fire some and keep some drivers, implying that if a driver supports the ballot measure, he will not be fired. Furthermore, also allegedly warned that if drivers still have jobs if the ballot measure does not pass, “they will lose scheduling flexibility, their earnings will be limited, they will be barred from using other ride-sharing apps, and they will be forced to accept rides with poorly rated riders.” The plaintiffs argued that “these threats mislead employees by stating that an across-the-board layoff and minimal rehire policy would be the inevitable, immutable consequence” if Proposition 22 does not pass. The plaintiffs claimed that “there is no legal reason why Uber could not operate with a workforce of employees.” Lastly, the plaintiffs proffered that Uber falsely states benefits for drivers to be classified as independent contractors, such as a guaranteed minimum income, but Uber does not disclose that this only applies to their time when they have a rider. As a result, the plaintiffs claimed that Uber’s purported conduct has coerced them and caused them harm.

Furthermore, the drivers pointed out that numerous misclassification lawsuits have alleged that Uber misclassified its drivers as independent contractors instead of employees. This includes the suit brought by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and several California city attorneys against Uber, which in August, the judge in the suit granted their motion for preliminary injunction, meaning that Uber must reclassify its drivers and give them various employment rights and protections. Thus, the plaintiffs asserted that these suits and AB-5 reach the same conclusion, that Uber drivers are employees. However, according to the plaintiffs, in an “effort to avoid the costs of complying with state law,” Uber and other gig economy companies “have poured close to two hundred million dollars into their campaign to enact Proposition 22,” in an attempt to overrule AB-5 and the protections provided under the bill.

Uber is accused of violating California Labor Code, the Private Attorneys General Act, and the Unfair Competition LawThe plaintiffs noted that administratively they have also submitted a Private Attorneys General Act notice to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency. The plaintiffs have sought declaratory and injunctive relief to stop Uber’s alleged conduct, an award for costs and fees, and other relief.

The plaintiffs are represented by Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe, LLP.