Uber driver unionization ordinance survives first challenge, for the moment

Today, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik handed The Chamber of Commerce and Uber their first setback in their legal challenge to Seattle’s ordinance allowing Uber drivers to unionize.

At the City’s request, Lasnik dismissed the Chamber’s lawsuit for “lack of standing.” Federal courts are only allowed to adjudicate “live controversies” where the plaintiff can name a specific, real injury that has already happened — not a future or theoretical one.

The Chamber of Commerce is generally allowed to sue as a business association if its members have standing to sue. It claimed Uber and Eastside for Hire as two members, and thus it needed to show that they were injured parties with standing to sue.

Uber claimed that it would be injured if it was required to disclose its list of Seattle drivers to a Qualified Driver Representative (QDR) who requested it under the terms of the ordinance. But since Uber hasn’t received any requests for its driver list yet — because to-date the City of Seattle hasn’t even figured out the rules for recognizing QDRs — Lasnik ruled that any injury is purely speculative.

Eastside for Hire claimed that it was injured because of expenses it incurred participating in the rulemaking process, hiring consultants to help them learn about the world of unions and collective bargaining, and because the anti-retaliation provisions of the ordinance that prohibit it from encouraging or discouraging union membership stopped them from making changes to their driver contract. Lasnik tore this apart too: participating in rulemaking is voluntary; if hiring consultants was a bona fide injury then any company could manufacture its own injury at any time for any purpose (citing supporting case history); and at the time Eastside for Hire claimed that they were prevented from making changes to their contract, the anti-retaliation provisions of the ordinance had not yet taken effect.

Lasnik also pointed out that many of the injuries claimed are not under control of the city: they are in the hands of the drivers and potential QDRs, none of whom are parties in the lawsuit.

Lasnik dismissed the lawsuit “without prejudice,” which means that the Chamber can re-file it in the future when the injury is real or imminent. Without doubt they will. Less clear is whether they will appeal Lasnik’s ruling before then; appeals courts generally give great deference to the district court’s rulings on factual matters since evidence and testimony can only be introduced at that level (appeals courts never get to examine evidence directly or look a witness in the eyes to judge reliability). And since Lasnik’s ruling is mostly on factual matters about the likelihood and imminence of specific events, the appeals court would probably not interfere. But as soon as Uber or Eastside for Hire receives their first request from a QDR for a list of drivers, then there is a real injury and clear standing.

This is a setback, but not a loss, for the Chamber of Commerce, Uber, and their fellow “driver coordinator” companies. From the city’s perspective, they didn’t win in any significant way, though they gave up no ground — at least for now.

The Mayor’s office recently told the City Council that they need another six months to get the rulemaking done, so the Chamber may be sitting on their hands for a while.