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Narayanasamy v. Claudette Issa

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

January 16, 2020

LOKESHWARAN NARAYANASAMY; SAVITRY KRISHNAMURTHY, Individually and as Parent, Natural Guardian, and Next Best Friend of SMITA LOKESHWARAN, Plaintiffs,
v.
CLAUDETTE ISSA; BALISE T, LLC; RASIER, LLC; UBER TECHNOLOGIES, INC.; JOHN DOE; and JANE DOE, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN J. MCCONNELL, JR., CHIEF JUDGE.

         Needing a ride from T.F. Green Airport to his hotel, Mr. Lokeshwaran Narayanasamy used the Uber Application on his cell phone to summon a driver. Defendant Claudette Issa, a registered Uber driver, responded and picked him up. During the trip, Ms. Issa's car collided with a vehicle owned by Balise T, LLC ("Balise") abandoned by the roadside after breaking down. Both Mr. Narayanasamy and Ms. Issa suffered injuries.

         The Narayanasamy's filed an eight-count complaint against Ms. Issa; Balise; Rasier, LLC and Uber Technologies, Inc. (collectively "Uber"); John Doe; and Jane Doe. ECF No. 1. Claiming Ms. Issa was negligent, Mr. Narayanasamy, along with his wife Savitry Krishnamurthy and their minor child (collectively "the Narayanasamy's"), seeks compensation from Uber under a theory of respondeat superior. They also sued Balise for negligence. Ms. Issa has brought crossclaims for personal injury and indemnification against Balise, John Doe, and Jane Doe. ECF No. 22. Balise filed crossclaims against Ms. Issa and Uber for contribution and indemnification, alleging negligence, negligent hiring, training, and supervision. ECF No. 14. Uber brought crossclaims against Defendants Balise, John Doe, and Jane Doe. ECF Nos. 17, 19.

         Uber moves for summary judgment, [1] claiming that Ms. Issa is not an agent, servant, or employee of Uber as a matter of law, and thus it cannot be held liable under any respondeat superior theory. ECF No. 68. Balise and the Narayanasamy's oppose the motion, arguing that summary judgment is inappropriate because enough questions of fact exist. ECF No. 71, 79. Uber filed a reply. ECF No. 81.

         Standard of Review

         When making a summary judgment determination, the Court should review the entire record and consider the facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Continental Cas. Co. v. Canadian Univ. Ins. Co., 924 F.2d 370, 373 (1st Cir. 1991). Summary judgment is warranted when "the pleadings [and discovery], together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A genuine dispute of material fact is an issue that "may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986).

         Analysis

         The question here is whether Ms. Issa is an Uber employee rendering Uber liable for the injuries resulting from the car accident. In its motion, Uber argues that it cannot be held liable as a matter of law for Ms. Issa's negligence because she is an independent contractor not an Uber employee. Mr. Narayanasamy counters that the Court should look into the reality of the relationship between Ms. Issa and Uber- one that he believes bears many hallmarks of an employer-employee relationship- and should deny summary judgment because there is a dispute over that relationship.

         The parties do not appear to dispute, however, that whether a relationship between parties constitutes an employer-employee relationship is a mixed question of fact and law and "depends in each case upon its particular facts taken as a whole." DiOrio v. R L. Platter, Inc., 211 A.2d 642, 644 (R.I. 1965).[2] There can be no fixed rule in these cases because '"no single phase of the evidence is determinative.'" Id. (quoting Sormanti v. Marsor Jewelry Co., 118 A.2d 339, 340 (R.I. 1955)). Therefore, a person's status in the work world-whether an employee or an independent contractor-should be decided by a jury when enough facts could support either finding.

         Other courts have held that the mixed fact-law question of whether Uber drivers are Uber employees belongs to the jury. Judge Edward M. Chen of the Northern District of California denied Uber's summary judgment motion, finding based on the facts in the case and reflecting on the United States Supreme Court's recent decision in Hana Financial, Inc. v. Hana Bank, __ U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 907, 190 L.Ed.2d 800 (2015), that a jury should decide whether Uber drivers were considered employees or independent contractors. O'Connor v. Uber Tech., Inc., 82 F.Supp.3d 1133 (N.D. Cal. 2015); See Hana Fin., 135 S.Ct. at 912 (unless the facts are so clear that only one inference may be drawn, mixed questions of law and fact are for the jury).

         The court; recognized that a '"jury's constitutional responsibility is not merely to determine the facts, but to apply the law to those facts and draw the ultimate conclusion.'" O'Connor, 82 F, Supp. 3d at 1147 (quoting United States v. Gaudin, 515 U.S. 506, 512 (1995)). It observed that

juries answer often-dispositive factual questions or make dispositive applications of legal standards to facts. The fact that another jury, hearing the same case, might reach a different conclusion may make the system 'unpredictable,' but it has never stopped us from employing juries in these analogous contexts."

O'Connor, 82 F.Supp.3d at 1148 (quoting Hana Fin., 135 S.Ct. at 912) ("juries should typically decide mixed questions of law and fact . . . [and] a hiree's status as either an employee or independent contractor should typically be determined by a jury, and not the judge."). Resolving this dispute will turn on the facts determined by the jury and the jury's application of the facts to the law as given to it by the Court. To the extent there is a concern that a jury "may improperly apply the relevant legal standard, the solution is to craft careful jury instructions that make that standard clear." Id. at 1148 (quoting Hana Fin., 135 S.Ct. at 912). At the motion for summary judgment stage, the Court's only determination is whether Balise and the Narayanasamy's have set forth enough evidence that if believed, a jury could determine that the driver, Ms. Issa was an employee of Uber.[3]

         Next, the Court looks at how state law views the parameters of the employer-employee relationship to see if more than one inference could be drawn such that the question should go to the jury. Under Rhode Island law, the test to determine whether a person is an employee or an independent contractor is '"based on the employer's right or power to exercise control over the method and means of performing the work and not merely the exercise of actual control.'" Cayer v. Cox Rhode Island Telecom, LLC,85 A.3d 1140, 1144 (R.I. 2014) (quoting Absi v. State Dep't of Admin.,785 A.2d 554, 556 (R.I. ...


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