'Black car' drivers in New York City lose wage appeal

NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than 200 “black car” drivers who ferry bankers, lawyers and other executives around New York City are independent contractors and cannot pursue class action claims that they were deprived of wages, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

The drivers had sued to recoup unpaid overtime from Corporate Transportation Group and several franchisors operating roughly 700 cars in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

By a 3-0 vote, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said the drivers “were in business for themselves,” reflecting their ability to set their own schedules, decide which rides to take, and work for multiple car services.

The drivers had argued that the defendants, which in some respects they likened to the ride-hailing service Uber, exerted “a great deal of control,” including by charging them for the right to drive, negotiating rates, maintaining a dress code, and setting rules on vehicle maintenance.

But in Wednesday’s decision, Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston said CTG “wielded virtually no influence over other essential components of the business, including when, where, in what capacity, and with what frequency plaintiffs would drive.”

While other companies in similar cases might be deemed employers under federal labor law, in the CTG case “these plaintiffs were not employees of these defendants,” she wrote.

A lawyer for the drivers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Evan Spelfogel, a lawyer for CTG and the franchisors, said the decision provided a “roadmap” for companies to preserve independent contractor relationships with drivers, even where some factors weigh in favor of employee status.

Wednesday’s decision upheld a September 2014 ruling by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan.

The U.S. Department of Labor sided with the drivers in their appeal, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Black Car Assistance Corp trade group sided with CTG.

The case is Saleem et al v. Corporate Transportation Group Ltd et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-88.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Andrew Hay