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The lawsuit that could change Uber forever has a trial date

Are Uber drivers independent contractors or employees entitled to certain benefits?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A California judge set a trial date for the class action lawsuit challenging the way Uber classifies its drivers as independent contractors. Judge Edward M. Chen ruled that the trial will start June 20th, 2016, and will last five weeks. The case, O'Connor v. Uber, gained some steam in March 2015 when Chen denied Uber's motion for summary motion and in September when he certified the case as a class action.

Uber says there is no typical driver

Critics of Uber, as well as interested parties in Silicon Valley, Washington, DC, and beyond, are watching the case closely to see if it changes how employees in the gig economy are defined. Uber has argued the case is "manifestly erroneous."

The case will boil down to whether Uber can successfully convince a jury that its classification of drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees of Uber, is appropriate. Earlier this week, David Plouffe, Uber's top political strategist and the former campaign manager of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential bid, argued at an event in DC that there is no typical Uber driver, but rather a range of types, from professional car service drivers to those that only drive a few days a week.

Plouffe also said that Uber was hardly the sole source of the nation's independent contractors. "This is not just about new digital platforms. Many industries have had high rates of independent workers for decades," he said. "Around 80 percent of real estate agents were independent in 2014; 64 percent of registered financial advisors are estimated to independent; even 20 percent of emergency room doctors are estimated to be independent. And yes, 90 percent of taxi drivers are estimated to be independent contractors. So any ideas or policy proposals will inevitably affect these other industries and must take these equities into account."

The plaintiffs argue that because Uber controls things like fares and performance standards, they should be considered employees and entitled to those perks stipulated under California's labor laws, like reimbursements for vehicles expenses. In a recent decision, a California labor commissioner ruled that an Uber driver was indeed an employee and ordered Uber to reimburse the driver for her expenses. Unlike that case, though, the class action lawsuit is expected to have more wide-reaching effects.

The on-demand economy as a whole could change

Shannon Liss-Riordan, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an email to The Verge that she was pleased a trial date has been set. "We have another hearing in two weeks for further discussion about the scope of the class," she wrote. "Judge Chen indicated his openness to revising parts of his class certification order that had excluded certain categories of class members, most notably those who accepted the 2014 arbitration agreement (which Uber had claimed had greatly diminished the size of the class)."

Other digital platforms that classify their workers as independent contractors include Lyft, Handy, Postmates, Door Dash, and many other VC-backed startups. Policymakers are debating the merits of the rise in on-demand businesses and whether these employees are entitled to benefits such as a minimum wage, paid sick leave, and other benefits.