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Bar Association Re-Opens Mediation Center

The San Fernando Valley Bar Association’s Valley Bar Mediation Center is now taking some of the weight off L.A. Superior Court judges with its designation as one of two vendors that can provide low-cost mediation services to those who request them from the court. The center, which is registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit and is located in the Bar Association’s offices in Tarzana, provides educational workshops and discounted mediation services with the aim of helping businesses and individuals resolve disputes without entering into costly litigation. It applied earlier this year to be one of the providers of mediation services through the Superior Court, which required that applicants demonstrate that the organization’s attorneys possessed the necessary qualifications and could provide references from individuals who had successfully resolved disputes through their services. The mediation center first received word of its selection in March but was added to the Superior Court’s website the week of June 18. Its phone has been ringing since then, Executive Director Deanna Armbruster said. “Our goal is to alleviate the burden on the courts because we are offering the opportunity for litigants to pursue a resolution through mediation, which is faster and cheaper and more streamlined,” she explained. “It doesn’t impede the court system.” The L.A. Superior Court ran its own mediation center for more than 20 years, but was forced to close it in 2013 due to budget cuts. Since then, judges have been overwhelmed by requests for mediation, which is often utilized by small businesses in the case of issues pertaining to workman’s compensation or unemployment insurance, customer injuries or landlord disputes. Dynamex Coalition Three local chambers of commerce were part of a statewide coalition of businesses and trade organizations that sent a letter to the California Legislature on June 20 requesting that it put a hold on the application of a three-part worker classification test outlined in the ruling in Dynamex v. L.A. Superior Court, as the cost of ensuing lawsuits threaten to decimate businesses, the coalition said. The Simi Valley, Oxnard and Camarillo chambers were among 76 companies and trade organizations to sign the letter, which included signatures from the California Hospital Association, California Retailers Association and Family Business Association of California. Well-known “gig economy” tech companies Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc. and Postmates Inc. also backed it; such firms are thought to be particularly vulnerable targets to legal action under the ruling, which sets forth a three-part test for determining whether a worker should be hired as an employee or an independent contractor. According to the ruling, a business that wishes to classify a worker as a freelancer must show that A) they have no control over when a worker performs his or her tasks; B) the worker is performing a task outside of the company’s usual scope of business; and C) that the worker is engaged in their own business that offers the services she or he is performing for the company. The ruling poses a challenge for businesses because it has the potential to hit them at the core of their business model, Gary Cushing, chief executive of the Camarillo chamber, said. “Not that we like the rules right now, but if you change them, that could change the model for what people are doing in their companies,” Cushing said. Representatives for the Simi Valley and Oxnard chambers did not return requests for comment by press time. The letter outlines two distinct problems that threaten to ensue from the ruling. First, it has the potential to “eliminate the vast majority of independent contractors in California,” the letter said. Second, it will further the litigation costs that are already strangling businesses under the controversial Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act, or PAGA, which allows employees to sue their current and former bosses for most Labor Code violations, regardless of whether they themselves have been directly harmed. “Employers will face a wave of litigation under PAGA with this decision that will destroy businesses or significantly reduce their economic growth,” the letter said. The goal of the letter is to convince state legislators to stop legal action that could result from the Dynamex ruling until all stakeholders have had the chance to work together to come up with a more balanced test for employee classification, according to the letter. “The time to act is now, before work opportunities are destroyed, and before the trial lawyers start crushing businesses with an onslaught of litigation,” the letter said. Staff reporter Helen Floersh can be reached at (818) 316-3121 or hfloersh@sfvbj.com.

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