Prop 22 legal challenge thrown out by California Supreme Court

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The California Supreme Court threw out a constitutional challenge to Proposition 22, clearing the path for the voter-approved law allowing gig companies to keep treating their workers as independent contractors.

The lawsuit that the state Supreme Court declined to hear was filed last month by a small group of app-based drivers and the Service Employees International Union, one of the nation’s largest labor unions. It alleges Proposition 22 limits the power of elected officials to govern, in violation of the California Constitution, by removing their ability to grant workers the right to organize and give access to the state workers’ compensation program.

The court’s decision Wednesday not to hear the case strengthens the position of gig economy companies, including Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars bankrolling the measure on the November ballot.

Protections for gig workers in California have been at the center of a political battle between labor advocates and gig economy companies that refused to comply with state labor law requiring them to classify their workers as employees — before the companies secured an exemption under Proposition 22. The demand for grocery and other food-delivery services during the COVID-19 pandemic has put a fresh spotlight on drivers’ working conditions.

The state Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs’ request to hear the case “without prejudice,” meaning the SEIU could still seek to challenge Proposition 22 by refiling the case in a lower court. That would probably turn into a much longer process. Attorneys representing the union and drivers said they hoped to expedite the case by taking it directly to the state Supreme Court.

The handful of drivers who brought forth the challenge said the Supreme Court’s decision was disappointing. “We will consider every option available to protect California workers from attempts by companies like Uber and Lyft to subvert our democracy and attack our rights in order to improve their bottom lines,” Hector Castellanos, one of the drivers who brought the lawsuit, said in a statement. Castellanos has driven for Uber and Lyft for about five years.

SEIU declined to comment on whether it would pursue the legal challenge further.

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart — the major companies that funded Proposition 22 — did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In response to a request for comment, Kathy Fairbanks, a representative of a coalition called Protect App-Based Drivers & Services, which led the main pro-Proposition 22 campaign last year, cited a statement by Jim Pyatt, an Uber driver living in Modesto.

“We’re thankful, but not surprised, that the California Supreme Court has rejected this meritless lawsuit. We’re hopeful this will send a strong signal to special interests to stop trying to undermine the will of voters who overwhelmingly stood with drivers to pass Proposition 22,” Pyatt said in the statement.

Proposition 22 cruised to a victory in November with 58% of the vote.

City attorneys for San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego had urged the state Supreme Court to hear the case, filing an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit in January arguing that Proposition 22 would deprive hundreds of thousands of workers of a “wide range” of protections and benefits.

The attorneys said determining the constitutionality of Proposition 22 would be crucial for a number of ongoing cases brought by public prosecutors alleging Uber, Lyft and other gig companies misclassified hundreds of thousands of drivers as independent contractors.

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