More than 400 drivers have joined a federal lawsuit that claims a Sapulpa trucking company is violating California labor laws and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act by requiring drivers to work without compensation.
The civil lawsuit alleges John Christner Trucking LLC misclassifies its drivers as independent contractors, when they are actually employees who are subject to federal and California labor laws.
An attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said simply calling a driver an independent contractor is not adequate if they are treated as employees. Workers who are deemed employees, rather than independent contractors, are protected by the FLSA, which establishes minimum wage and other requirements.
“We’d like to make sure that the class members have been properly compensated for all the hours that they are entitled to,” attorney Robert Boulter said. “The first step is going to be establishing that they are employees rather than independent contractors.
“You have a lot of these folks who are out there working for weeks at a time and are not getting an adequate paycheck.”
Darryl Christner, a co-owner and chief financial officer for John Christner Trucking, said the company follows all labor laws and denies the allegations in the lawsuit.
“We’ve been in business for a little over 32 years, so if we were patently doing something illegal or unethical on a continuous basis, we wouldn’t be in business,” Christner said.
Lawsuits challenging the independent contractor status in the trucking industry have been increasing in recent years, Christner said.
“We’re one of thousands of trucking companies that are facing the same (type of) litigation,” Christner said. “It’s just been an easy place for plaintiff attorneys to go, and the state of California has been supporting it.”
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Thomas Huddleston, claims he worked as a driver for John Christner Trucking for about four months in 2016. The California resident claims he routinely worked 98-hour weeks for JCT and it was not uncommon to be paid less than $500 for the week.
Some weeks, because of truck lease payments and other deductions from his paycheck, Huddleston claims he ended up owing money to the trucking company at the end of the pay period.
The lawsuit was filed July 12, 2017, in a California federal court and includes allegations of violations of Oklahoma’s Consumer Protection Act. The lawsuit was transferred Sept. 28, 2017, to Tulsa federal court at the request of John Christner Trucking and over the objection of the plaintiffs.
A federal judge in May granted conditional certification of the potential class of plaintiffs to include current and former individuals who provided transportation services as an independent contractor for John Christner Trucking between May 1, 2015, and May 1, 2018.
Individuals who contracted with the company during that time period and who leased trucks from John Christner Trucking or its affiliate, Three Diamond Leasing LLC, must notify plaintiff’s counsel prior to the Sept. 16 deadline if they wish to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The court has authorized a website be established to provide information about the case and permit individuals to electronically join the lawsuit: www.huddlestonvjohnchristnertrucking.com.
Boulter said over 2,500 notices have been sent out to prospective plaintiffs. Once the deadline passes to join the lawsuit, a judge will decide whether the case can proceed as a collective action lawsuit.
A July 25 court filing indicated 426 individuals have opted to join in the lawsuit. Collective action lawsuits, as they are called in FLSA cases, require individuals to opt in to the case rather than be automatically be included as is the practice in the more commonly known class-action lawsuits, Boulter said.
Boulter said the lawsuit is a reaction to a trend among some trucking companies whose practices include shifting business costs to its workers.
One such practice involves requiring drivers to lease trucks from the company or an affiliate, Boulter said.
“Usually the terms and conditions of the lease agreements, and the independent contractor agreements, is essentially the employees are captive; they are not really free to drive as a practical matter, free to drive for other companies,” Boulter said.
Huddleston claims in a court filing that John Christner Trucking “exercised complete control” over all his activities relating to driving for the company.
The company, he claimed, prohibited him from declining a load, controlled his equipment and required him to lease company-provided communication equipment and the truck he drove.
“I was never given the option to obtain a truck from anyone other than JCT,” Huddleston claimed. “JCT then automatically deducted two payments for the truck from my compensation on a weekly basis — one a flat weekly rent payment, and another payment that increased with the number of miles driven.
“JCT did not allow me to use the truck to drive for any carrier other than JCT,” Huddleston continued. “I was told this was because the truck was JCT’s property.
“Because I was not allowed to haul for any other carrier, I was entirely dependent on JCT to earn income.”
A trucking industry expert agreed these types of lawsuits have been on the rise in recent years.
“These cases are going to continue to grow in number and challenge the existing model of the (trucking) industry for sure,” said Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Viscelli, author of “The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream,” said companies can run afoul with labor laws when they exercise too much control over contract labor.
“The law requires if you control the person directly, what they are doing, how they do it when they do it, they are your employee,” Viscelli said, rather than contract labor.
Trucking companies who hire independent contractors for drivers are “moving in the wrong direction” when it comes to giving workers control, Visceilli said.
Poor wage complaints are common in the industry, he said.
While some drivers are able to earn good incomes, many who are apt to be misclassified as an independent contractor and subject to minimum wage violations can earn an annual income in the $30,000 range, Viscelli said.
If the drivers are not “running really high miles, drivers can earn between $20,000 and $40,000 despite averaging 80-plus hours a week,” Viscelli said.
Many drivers are also unaware of what they are signing up for when sign independent contractor agreements and truck lease agreements, he said.
“They just don’t know all the economics of it when they are getting in to it partly because the company has all those numbers,” Viscelli said.
Others have more information but they don’t know how many miles they actually are going to be permitted to drive, he said.
“So they may be thinking ‘I’ve been running over the road I get 3,000 miles a week. This company is ... telling me I’m going to get 2,800 miles a week.’
“Later it turns out the driver is only getting about 2,100 miles per week,” Viscelli said.
“Well, over the course of that month, that 1,000 miles ... makes this between a good paycheck and something less than they were making before,” he said.
Meanwhile, Christner said he doubts that many of the drivers who have signed on to the lawsuit know what they are getting into.
“Honestly, a lot of people who have joined this lawsuit, in my opinion, have no idea what this lawsuit is about,” Christner said. “They just think they are going to get some money.”
While saying he believes his trucking company “will eventually prevail” in the lawsuit, he concedes that it would result in big changes in the trucking industry should lawsuits like this go against the trucking industry.
“And so if case law, if it would go against that model completely, I would say that a lot of folks including us would have to change our business model and the arrangement as it relates to the labor component,” Christner said. “It would be an enormous shift in the way that everything is transacted.”