In a decision filed March 18, 2015, the South Carolina Supreme Court gave workers’ compensation benefits to a stripper who suffered grave injuries in a shooting during her shift. While this type of story begs for jokes to draw attention to the author’s wit, we’re not going to do that.
We follow the Supreme Court’s lead. This decision is a reminder that justice is for everybody. We all know no one is above the law. But this shows us no one is beneath it, either. There’s a bigger picture here, framed by the law: it makes us all equal, even those we judge based on what they do, instead of who they are.
The decision is also important because it shines a light on one of the toughest legal issues in workers’ compensation—whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee. Here’s a summary of the decision:
LeAndra Lewis got hit by a stray bullet during her shift as an exotic dancer at a club called the Boom Boom Room. She sustained severe internal injuries, including the loss of a kidney. She now bears extensive scars. Her claim for workers’ compensation got denied by a single commissioner, denied on appeal to the full workers’ compensation commission, and denied by the South Carolina Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court took the case.
Every court denied Lewis benefits because they ruled she was an independent contractor, not an employee. In workers’ compensation law, employees get workers’ compensation benefits; independent contractors do not. Here’s the distinction: independent contractors work in whatever way they wish, without the control of their employer, except for the result of the work. A house painter is an independent contractor because you don’t tell him how to paint, you just expect the house to get painted right.
The legal test to determine the status of a worker centers on the right of the employer to control the work. Courts examine four factors:
- The right of control or use of control over the method of work
- Who provides the equipment for the work
- The method of payment
- The right to fire.
Courts look at all four factors equally. Then they decide the worker’s status based on the overall picture of what all four factors most likely indicate.
This is a summary of how the Supreme Court analyzed each factor to reach its decision:
- The club exercised “significant control” over Lewis’s work. The club could refuse her entry if they didn’t like how she looked. Before coming in, she paid the club a tip-out fee and submitted to a search. The club controlled when she danced, required her to dance topless and nothing more, and required her to give VIP dances if requested, in a specified area.
- The club gave Lewis equipment. The club supplied performance space, including the VIP dance area, a stage with a pole, and a sound system for music.
- Payment method suggested she was an independent contractor. Because the court decides the case based on all the evidence, this did not win the day for the club. Here, the Court could not perform its typical analysis because Lewis never filed taxes and the club never gave her an IRS Form 1099 or W2. This indicated the club did not control how she did her job.
- The club had the right to fire the stripper. The Court concluded she could be fired for violating company rules and could be prevented from working for any reason by the club. The Court found it important Lewis had no right to relief if she got fired.
The Court ruled Lewis entitled to workers’ compensation benefits because overall, the evidence indicated she worked as an employee rather than a contractor, as the South Carolina workers’ compensation law interprets those terms.
The Court made clear this is not a sweeping ruling entitling all strippers to workers’ compensation benefits. Employee and independent contractor cases are always decided on a case-by-case basis.
But this bold decision shows why this Court is supreme. It upholds the dignity of law—and all people—by applying the law to the facts to render justice without regard to popular views of a party’s reputation. It’s the difference between judgment-wisdom and judging-condescension. Nobody said it better than the Supreme Court:
“Attempting to broadly characterize the nature of her profession prior to engagement in the analysis foretells a single result. The question before the Court is a simple, fact-based consideration—did the Club exercise sufficient control over Lewis to create an employee relationship—further commentary on the nature of her profession is unnecessary.”
Justice for all.