Day in court

By Greg Grisolano, associate editor

What has the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association done for truckers? When it comes to fighting for their rights to represent themselves in court against carriers who fail to honor truth-in-leasing agreements, the answer is: plenty.

OOIDA spearheaded efforts to create a private right of action – essentially allowing drivers to have their day in court and seek not only actual damages, but legal bills and attorneys’ fees arising from attempting to bring those actions to trial.

Private right of action came about as a result of drivers not having an effective means of legal recourse to challenge Truth-in-Leasing violations in the 1990s. Back then, under the Interstate Commerce Commission, drivers weren’t even allowed to take a leasing complaint to court. Instead, those complaints had to be filed with the commission, which could take years before it issued a ruling. As OOIDA President and CEO Jim Johnston said in a 2012 editorial in Land Line, "it was a system that allowed carriers to do whatever they wanted to their owner-operators."

"It was take it or leave it," Johnston wrote in the May 2012 issue of Land Line. "And the owner-operator, because he liked to eat, mostly was left with no option but to take it."

When the ICC was abolished in 1995, Johnston said the Association knew it had to act quickly to establish some form of recourse and protection for owner-operators. OOIDA lobbied successfully to implement a private right of action provision, which was included in the ICC sunset legislation.

The reason truckers needed their own recourse to settle disputes was simple. Enforcement of the leasing regs was transferred to the Department of Transportation, which, as Johnston said, had neither the budget nor the inclination to enforce economic regulations.

"The leasing rules were put in place to level the playing field between one-man-one-truck operations and multimillion-dollar corporations," Johnston said in a 2005 editorial in Land Line. "They require full disclosure and basically say, ‘thou shall not steal.’ Unfortunately, we have to go to the court to enforce those rules against far too many companies."

Once the private right of action was established, OOIDA wasted no time in putting it to use, filing lawsuits against New Prime and Arctic Air Express on behalf of drivers who said they were getting the short end of a leasing arrangement.

From there, the Association has spent millions of dollars to establish this case law, and OOIDA Truth-in-Leasing lawsuits continue to establish a lasting legacy for owner-operators. More than two dozen cases have been filed by OOIDA on behalf of its members, establishing a bedrock foundation of case law for other truckers to not only try, but also win cases at trial.

Standing on past victories

The branches of that tree of case law continue to bear fruit in dozens of cases in courthouses all over the nation. Whenever drivers file suit against companies that fail to pay them a fair wage, they have a bevy of cases fought and won by OOIDA to stand on.

In October, attorneys for a trucker in California are using OOIDA cases as the foundation for two separate lawsuits against Allied Van Lines and Stevens Transport, alleging breach of contract and violation of truth-in-leasing requirements.

The lawsuits were filed by Los Angeles-based Haffner Law, on behalf of truck driver Frank Leitzbach, and others similarly situated.

Leitzbach worked for Stevens from December 2014 to October 2015, and prior to that worked for Atlas Van Lines for several years. According to court documents, he worked as a driver. The lawsuit claims he and the proposed class were incorrectly classified as an independent contractor.

Both Atlas Van Lines and Stevens Transport are accused of failing to pay drivers all wages, failure to reimburse business expenses, and failure to provide meal and rest breaks under California law. The complaint against Atlas Van Lines was filed Oct. 21 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, while the case against Stevens Transportation was filed at the federal level in the U.S. District Court of California. The class includes drivers who worked or lived in California and were employed by either company within the last four years.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Joshua Haffner says one of the key issues in both suits is driver classification, and whether or not the members of the class were independent contractors, or should have been classified as employees, and entitled to reimbursement for meals and breaks under California law.

"Misclassification in the driving industry is endemic and it’s a problem for the drivers," Haffner said in a phone interview with Land Line. "It’s a very widespread problem."

Both lawsuits allege the companies violated California labor codes by requiring drivers to work shifts lasting more than four hours without receiving a 10-minute rest break; requiring drivers to work shifts longer than five or 10 hours; and not providing or allowing required 30-minute meal breaks. Both companies failed to pay class members for all hours worked. The suit also alleges that class members suffered loss of wages and compensation by failing to be paid for all hours worked, and failing to be paid minimum and overtime wages.

Just as Johnston predicted, the Association – armed with private right of action and a litigation war chest larger than any one owner-operator – took on more than 20 carriers. Each case has strengthened individual truckers’ rights to stand up against "ruthless, unprincipled carriers – large and small – and it continues to be our most important instrument in obtaining relief against those who have blatant disregard for the rules."

"One of the main considerations we use in our philosophy on these legal actions is that it’s really important to recognize that what affects one of us, affects all of us in one form or another," Johnston said. "If a motor carrier is able to generate its profits by stealing from an owner-operator or driver, then they don’t have to make their profits hauling freight. And you are competing with those people."