SJC To Hear Important Employment Classification Case
The critical question of whether real estate agents are governed by the state’s strict independent contractor law is now headed to the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest appellate court in Massachusetts. The SJC will hear arguments in December, and a decision is expected in the Spring of 2015.
Hanging in the balance is the fate of the historically independent, commission based real estate brokerage office model. An unfavorable result at the SJC would essentially turn this model upside-down, requiring brokerages to pay their agents minimum and overtime wages and provide all the statutory benefits afforded to employees. The real estate office as we know it today would likely cease to exist.
The case is Monell v. Boston Pads, LLC, a class action brought by a group of disgruntled real estate agents at Jacob Realty, one of the largest real estate offices in Boston. As I wrote about in this post, Judge Robert Cosgrove ruled last year that the agents should be considered independent contractors and not employees. Given the importance of the case, the SJC granted direct appellate review.
The Massachusetts Association of Realtors has filed a friend of the court brief, in support of classifying agents as independent contractors. I agree with the MAR that real estate agents should be classified as independent contractors given its unique and historically independent business model.
However, this is a very difficult case to handicap. The problem arises when brokerages, such as Jacob Realty, ask its agents to do many of the things traditional employees must adhere to, such as required office hours, dress code, and performance benchmarks. This is especially so where courts have, in the last few years, strictly interpreted the independent contractor and wage laws in other industries. The more requirements imposed on agent, the more likely they should be treated as employees and not independent contractors, the argument goes.
Also likely to play a large role is that in 2008 the Legislature tried — and failed — to amend the law to make real estate agents exempt from the independent contractor law. Governor Patrick vetoed the legislation. This legislative history hurts the brokers.
There is a decent chance this case could go against the industry. In that event, I hope the MAR has legislation ready to preserve the existing office model so there will be no adverse effect on Realtors. And by then, Gov. Patrick — who’s been no friend of the real estate and title business — will be long gone from office.