Judge Body-Slams Grapplers

March 31st, 2009 by

Back in September we blogged a lawsuit filed by three former wrestlers of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the colorful circus of flying bodies managed by Vince McMahon. The wrestlers claimed that they were not independent contractors, but employees of WWE and entitled to all the benefits of employment. We guessed that Vince would be crushed in court. Well, we guessed wrong.
Judge Peter Dorsey of the U. S. District in Connecticut has dismissed all the charges against the formidably muscled McMahon. The judge found no merit in the three fundamental assertions of the plaintiffs:
: that WWE failed to withhold taxes (no harm to the individuals, the judge said)
: that the three grapplers were denied the “rights and benefits” of employment (no specifics in the filing, so the judge ruled against them)
: That WWE benefitted from “unjust enrichment” (again, the judge found no basis in law for this assertion)
One thing puzzles me about the findings. Nowhere does Judge Dorsey consider the fundamental test for independent contractors: who controls the work? Here’s what the IRS has to say about the issue:

The general rule is that an individual is an independent contractor if you, the person for whom the services are performed, have the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not the means and methods of accomplishing the result.

Despite the fact that every match is scripted from introductions to outcome (“means and methods”), despite the fact that these “independent contractors” have no control whatsoever over their work: when to show up, how to perform the job, whether or not to lose the match…Despite these compelling indications that they are indeed employees, the judge has determined that they are not.
I believe the plaintiffs dropped the proverbial ball when they failed to mention at least one benefit near and dear to the Insider: workers comp. WWE offered a workplace full of unusual hazards. (Ever try cracking a folding chair over the head of a co-worker without hurting him?) Despite the fixed outcomes, injuries are commonplace in this high-risk field of endeavor. Yet these three wrestlers – along with their fellow independent contractor colleagues – are on their own for the inevitable injuries that occur in the course and scope of their work.
Hope for FedEx?
While the judge dismissed this particular lawsuit on technicalities, I wonder how he would view the contracts between FedEx and its “independent contractor” drivers. Perhaps he would stick to the letter of the written agreements and, once again, ignore the core issue of who controls the work. So there may be hope for FedEx’s battered business model, at least in one U.S. District court.
In the meantime, when your channel surfing brings you to the scripted mayhem of the WWE, pause for a moment and consider the fate of the behemoths pummeling each other with abandon. They may appear to be working in a collaborative – if cartoon-violent – manner; they may appear to be following a script written by others, but don’t be fooled. As far as the law is concerned, WWE performers are independent contractors, answerable to no one but themselves. I suppose that makes wrestling matches real. Now if they could just get those comically incompetent refs to do their jobs…