In an opinion that disappointingly failed to take advantage of countless pun opportunities, a federal judge in New York otherwise got it right, ruling that the United States Tennis Association properly classified U.S. Open tennis officials as independent contractors, not employees.  Meyer v. United States Tennis Ass’n, No. 1:11-cv-6268 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 11, 2014).

The lawsuit, filed during match play in the quarterfinals of the 2011 U.S. Open tournament, alleged that the USTA violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law by declining to pay chair umpires and linesmen an overtime premium for work in excess of forty hours per week.  Applying the “economic realities” test applicable to FLSA claims, and applying similar New York State standards, the District Court held that the officials retained significant discretion over how and when to perform their jobs, retained a risk of profit or loss, and retained substantial flexibility to work for other employers, including other tennis organizations.  These factors, the Court held, required a conclusion that the officials were indeed independent contractors, and that the overtime rules therefore did not apply. 

The Court granted summary judgment in favor of the USTA and dismissed the case.

The officials, whose motion for class certification had been granted, argued that they were treated like employees because they were required to wear uniforms, were required to appear for their scheduled US Open matches at specified times, and were required to officiate in accordance with the rules of the game and the Officials’ Code of Conduct.

The Court acknowledged these facts but ruled that they did not tilt the scales toward an employment relationship.  The Court placed far greater emphasis on the facts that the officials had full discretion and authority to call the game as they saw it, discretion whether to report technical infractions by players, discretion whether to penalize players for rules violations, and discretion whether to suspend a match for weather conditions.  The officials, moreover, decided on their own whether to officiate at the U.S. Open tournament and, if so, which days of the tournament to work.  Officials were permitted to hold other jobs and generally did so (several were also practicing lawyers) and, even with regard to officiating, they were permitted to serve as umpires for multiple tennis associations.

The umpires and linesmen controlled whether their officiating work would yield a profit or loss by making their own decisions about which officiating certifications to pursue, how many training sessions to attend and at what level of difficulty, how many days to work at the U.S. Open, and how to plan their lodging, meal, and travel arrangements.  The Court also stressed the limited duration of the tournament, which lasts just three weeks each year, including qualifying rounds and the main draw.

The USTA had also argued that the “amusement or recreational exemption” applied and therefore exempted the officials from overtime eligibility even if they were deemed employees, but the Court never had to rule on that secondary question, since it determined that the officials were not employees of the USTA.

Other blogs that post about this decision will undoubtedly point out that the plaintiffs double-faulted, or that the plaintiffs served up some good arguments but the judge called them out, or maybe even that the Court showed some balls in siding with the USTA, but this blog will say none of those things.  And that is because we believe professional tennis demands the highest level of decorum and respect for authority at all times.

The bottom line:  Although independent contractor relationships remain under steady attack, very short-term relationships that leave workers with ample discretion and opportunities to earn a profit or incur a loss are likely to be respected as legitimate independent contractor relationships.