Insurance agents were misclassified as independent contractors, a federal judge in Ohio ruled in a class-action lawsuit that could be valued as much as $1 billion. However, the judge has also granted immediate appellate review of the decision.
The case pitted agents against insurance company American Family Insurance Group. A jury found the agents were employees in an advisory ruling in April. Judge Donald Nugent upheld the decision in his July 31 opinion.
Nugent cited American Family’s control over the agents as a factor in his decision.
“The degree of control managers were encouraged to exercise [over the agents] was inconsistent with independent contractor status and was more in line with the level of control a manager would be expected to exert over an employee,” Nugent wrote.
In addition to the level of control, the company trained its sales managers to treat agents the same as employees and American Family training manuals referred to agents as “employees.” The company also discouraged or prohibited agents from taking on other employment, even outside of insurance, and required agents to sign lifetime noncompete agreements against contact with American Family agency clients.
Agents also performed a core function of American Family’s Business.
“We look forward to proceeding to the next phase of the case, which could spark a chain reaction throughout the insurance industry,” plaintiffs attorney Ed Wallace said in a statement.
“A unanimous jury, and now the Judge, agreed that the agents were misclassified as independent contractors. This is a great day for the agents who had the courage to challenge the practices of a large corporation and fight for years to protect their rights as employees,” another plaintiffs attorney, Erin Dickinson, said in a statement. “Large corporations can’t have it both ways. If you are going to dictate how people do their jobs, you have to give them the same benefits as other employees.”
However, proceedings are stayed as the judge has allowed an immediate appeallate review.
“American Family agents operate with tremendous independence that justifies classification as independent contractors,” said American Family Chief Legal Officer Mark Afable. “The classification has been previously affirmed by five federal court decisions and the Internal Revenue Service. We are confident we will prevail in this situation as well, affirming the strong relationships and model we have with our agents.”
The case was initially filed by four former American Family agents. The judge certified the case as a class action in March 2016, which added 7,000 former and current American Family agents as unnamed plaintiffs.
American Family argues the agents are independent contractors. “American Family agents are solely responsible for the manner and means by which they sell insurance and run their agencies. They set their office hours; select, pay and determine responsibilities for their staff; and create and execute their own business plans. They declare themselves as self-employed independent contractors with the IRS and take tax deductions for their business expenses,” according to the company.
It must still be determined what the agents are owed. Plaintiffs attorneys are seeking retirement benefits owed agents, which they calculate could be worth up to $1 billion.
According to the website of plaintiffs’ law firm Wexler Wallace, the $1 billion figure is based on a combination of American Family’s existing liability under its “Termination Benefits plan,” and an increase in pension liability.
American Family said the number is an exaggerated figure floated by the plaintiffs. “The estimate is grossly overstated and premature considering the case is still being resolved,” Afable said. “American Family is financially strong and well prepared for the possibility of a court judgment.”