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Will Judge Chen Be a Thorn in Uber's Side?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 14, 2015 3:57 PM

Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen granted class status to a group of drivers suing Uber. The drivers allege that Uber misclassifies them as independent contractors when they are in fact employees and entitled to employee benefits.

While the ruling itself is news worthy (we covered it here), so too was Judge Chen's handling of the lawyers, indicating that neither Uber nor the drivers have an easy road ahead of them.

A New Judge Koh?

When slapping down Uber's legal arguments, Judge Chen didn't pull any punches. His extensive, detailed opinion focused largely on whether the drivers met the predominance requirements for a class action suit -- whether, that is, common questions of law and fact predominated over individualized claims.

Coming in at 68 pages long (and including no less than 22 sections and sub-sections in the predominance section alone), Judge Chen's opinion thoroughly rejects Uber's "problematic" arguments. The company focuses on "legally irrelevant differences" between drivers, he writes, and says that there is "simply no basis" for its claim that "some innumerable legion of drivers prefer to remain independent contractors rather than become employees."

When Uber submitted 400 driver declarations in August, each saying they loved being independent contractors, Judge Chen described the tactic as "impressive, except when you measure that against 160,000 class members."

In refusing to grant any slack to Uber, Judge Chen reminds us of another N.D. Cal judge, Judge Lucy Koh. You may remember Judge Koh as the federal judge who asked Apple's attorney if he was "smoking crack" during one of the company's many lawsuits against Samsung. Or perhaps Judge Koh stands out better as the judge who rejected a paltry settlement between tech workers and Silicon Valley companies over the companies' anti-poaching agreement. Koh's ability to shut down tech darlings had FindLaw calling her "the most powerful woman in Silicon Valley" at the time. We're seeing echoes of Koh in Judge Chen's treatment of Uber.

Plaintiffs Don't Get Off Easy Either

If Uber's lawyers have it bad, Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney representing the drivers, isn't getting off easily either. Liss-Riordan is a class action lawyer who previously won big for FedEx drivers and strippers (there was little overlap in the plaintiffs). She's been waging a high-profile attack on tech's classification of workers as independent contractors, suing not just Uber but also Lyft and even traditional cab companies in Boston.

Uber had argued, half-heartedly, that Liss-Riordan was inadequate to represent the drivers. She was, according to the company, "over extended because of the multitude of cases she is currently prosecuting against Uber and similar firms." While rejecting that argument, Judge Chen did note that it "shares Uber's concern at least in theory, and advises Ms. Liss-Riordan to focus considerable time and attention on this case now that it has been certified." Not that we'd imagine Liss-Riordan shirking off a billion dollar class action for a sabbatical in the Cote d'Azur anyway.

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