Grappling with the Independent Contractor Problem

September 3rd, 2008 by

I’m feeling Vince McMahon’s pain. It’s as if someone picked me up, body slammed me and then whacked me with a folding chair. Talk about ingratitude!
Three wrestlers affiliated with McMahon’s colorful World Wrestling Enterprises (WWE) are suing the muscled entrepreneur. Scott Levy (AKA Raven), Christopher Klucsarits (Chris Kanyon) and Michael Sanders say they are WWE employees. McMahon says they are independent contractors. Maybe Raven, Kanyon and Sanders should dress up in FedEx uniforms and pile drive the haughty McMahon into the canvas.
As with FedEx drivers, the wrestlers have a pretty strong case. After all, I am shocked (shocked!) to report that wrestling matches are scripted. The “independent contractor” work is totally controlled by the writers at WWE: the wrestlers fall and rise on cue. They win when they are supposed to win and lose when they are supposed to lose. The remarkably ineffective officiating is also fixed. Given that the primary work of the WWE is wrestling, it’s pretty tough to make a case that the wrestlers themselves are independent contractors. Without the work of the wrestlers, WWE ceases to exist (as FedEx disappears without its “contractor” drivers). Vince is going to lose this one.
I do have a suggestion for McMahon. Hold a mock trial in the ring: dress the wrestlers up as a judge and a bunch of lawyers. They could shout their speeches into a microphone and then pummel each other into submission. Under the script, of course, McMahon, bloodied and defiant, his fancy silk tie ripped to shreds, would ultimately prevail.
In the real courts of Connecticut, the procedure will be quite civilized and the outcome will likely go the other way. Given the scripted nature of the entertainment, it will prove very difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate true independence for the wrestlers. While they do provide their own tools (costumes and make up, along with an occasional 2 x 4), every move is dictated by management. Wrestling is “entertainment” and the participants are actors.
This particular form of entertainment may seem far-removed from the traditional stage, where an actor is:

… a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

We might well argue that life in general has more meaning than this despairing assessment by a beleaguered MacBeth. But in the case of the WWE, it’s spot on.
Thanks to Overlawyered and Daniel Schwartz for a heads up on this irresistable item.