SJC launches app-based driver voting question – Boston 25 News

BOSTON — The ballot question over the status and benefits of app-based drivers will not pass before voters this fall and Attorney General Maura Healey was wrong to certify it for the ballot, the Supreme Court of Justice said Tuesday in a decision that abruptly put the brakes on a costly and controversial campaign.

The state’s highest court determined that the proposed ballot question (there were technically two slightly different versions) contained “at least two substantially distinct policy decisions,” putting the proposal at odds with the Constitution’s requirement of state that initiative petitions contain only related or mutually dependent matters. .

Writing for the SJC, Justice Scott Kafker said most of the initiatives are devoted to defining a new relationship and contractual benefits between drivers and the “network companies” to which they connect consumers. But, he said, “in loosely worded provisions placed in a separate section towards the end of the laws they propose, the petitions go beyond defining the relationship between app-based drivers and network companies and associated salaries and legal benefits”.

Beyond the relationship between drivers and platforms, the proposed question would also have changed the relationship between platforms like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash and the general public by changing the potential liability a ride-hailing network company would have. towards a person injured by a driver. Whether the petitions would create an “accountability shield” for the platforms was at the center of oral argument in the case last month.

“The petitions thus violate the related matters requirement because they present voters with two substantially distinct policy decisions: one confined for the most part to the contractual and voluntary relationship between app-based drivers and network companies. ; the other – framed in confusingly vague and open-ended provisions – apparently seeking to limit network companies’ liability to third parties harmed by the tortious conduct of app-based drivers,” Kafker wrote in the decision that declares Healey’s certification of both versions of the question to be erroneous.

The SJC decision ends a campaign that pitted deep-pocketed tech companies who collectively spent more than $200 million in 2020 to successfully advocate for a similar measure in California, known as the Proposition. 22, against Massachusetts union interests with powerful allies such as the United States. Senator Elizabeth Warren. About 200,000 Massachusetts workers drive for ride-sharing platforms, and companies typically refer to them as independent contractors.

Wes McEnany, who led the Massachusetts Not For Sale opposition campaign, said Massachusetts drivers, passengers and taxpayers can “rest easier” knowing that the SJC rescinded the petition. proposed initiative.

“The ballot question was framed not only as an attempt to curtail the rights of drivers, but would also have endangered the rights of passengers and the public. The election question would have allowed these companies to avoid their most basic responsibilities of providing safe and reliable transportation service. We are excited to continue the work of our coalition to ensure drivers, passengers and taxpayers are protected from the greed of Big Tech CEOs,” he said. “We commend the court for getting it right on this issue and we will remain vigilant and united against any further attempts by Big Tech to weaken worker and consumer protections in Massachusetts or beyond.”

Flexibility and benefits for drivers in Massachusetts, the industry-backed group that originated the proposed ballot question, said a “clear majority” of voters and drivers supported and would have embraced the question whether it had been put to the vote.

“This is exactly why opponents have used lawsuits to subvert the democratic process and deprive voters of the right to make their own decision. The future of these services and the drivers who gain from them is now in jeopardy, and we hope that the legislator will stand with the 80% of drivers who want flexibility and remain independent contractors while having access to new advantages. a spokesperson for the group said in a statement.

When the SJC heard oral argument in the case last month, the judges focused on the argument that a provision in the initiative that states drivers will not be considered “an employee or agent at all purposes with respect to its relationship with the networked business” is intended to protect businesses from vicarious liability.

Kafker, who drafted Tuesday’s decision formally eliminating the issue from the statewide November ballot, was particularly engaged during closing arguments and suggested during the presentation that the initiative entwined two unrelated issues.

“The public can have an opinion about gig workers and how they are paid, whether or not they get all these benefits. But the public cares a lot about whether, if they have an accident with one of these people, do they just sue the poor guy driving the car or can they sue the big corporation that can protect and cover its damages? These are two different political issues,” Kafker said when the SJC heard the case. He echoed those comments in his opinion on Tuesday.

Kafker also pointed out in his decision that the petitions included language stating that “any party seeking to establish that a person is not an app-based driver bears the burden of proof,” which he said would do also ensure that the petitions “go far beyond the contractual relationship between network companies and app-based drivers, and the compensation and benefits associated with it.”

Healey’s office, which declared both versions of the question acceptable for the ballot, had argued that “all provisions of the petitions are relevant to the purpose” of defining and regulating the contractual relationship between network companies and drivers app-based. The AG’s office also disagreed that the wording of the petitions would create a so-called liability shield.

But this disagreement over exactly how the language of the petitions would affect lawsuits and the rights of people to file complaints in Massachusetts was cited by Kafker as another reason the issue was not ready to go to voters this fall.

“Where even lawyers and judges cannot be sure of the meaning of the impugned provisions, it would be unfaithful to [Article] The design of 48 to allow the petition to be presented to the voters, with all the attendant risks of voters being confused and misled,” he wrote, referring to the part of the Constitution that deals with initiative petitions.

Trial and legislation

The evaporation of the ballot issue dealing with the classification, compensation and benefits of drivers on platforms could make a two-year-old lawsuit that deals with similar topics more important than it could have been. Be if voters had weighed in on the problems of the gig economy this fall.

In July 2020, Healey sued Uber and Lyft, alleging the popular platforms violated Massachusetts labor laws by treating their nearly 200,000 drivers as independent contractors rather than employees and that the companies pocketed “hundreds of dollars each year.” millions” of dollars that they should rather pay in benefits and state systems.

Healey’s lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment ordering companies to comply with state wage and hour laws, essentially trying to get the courts to force companies to comply with the types of labor laws. state employment that their proposed ballot question was intended to change.

The trial remains active and the next scheduled event in the proceedings is a conference scheduled for July 12, according to court records.

The issues at play in the proposed voting question are also still relevant in Beacon Hill. The Joint Financial Services Committee has until June 30 to decide how to deal with a bill (H 1234) introduced by Rep. Mark Cusack of Braintree and Rep. Carlos Gonzalez of Springfield and backed by industry players who have supported the question of the failed vote. This bill would establish portable benefit accounts for app-based drivers, but it has faced stiff opposition from lawmakers and others who see it as a corporate attempt to return the lawsuit. of Healey moot by rewriting state law.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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Lance B. Holton