Is a radio and television host an employee or an independent contractor? The Supreme Court addressed this issue in Sonza v. ABS-CBN (G.R. No. 138051).
In determining whether Sonza was an employee of ABS-CBN or an independent contractor, the Supreme Court examined the presence of the elements of an employer-employee relationship.
Sonza v. ABS-CBN (G.R. No. 138051)
Case law has consistently held that the elements of an employer-employee relationship are:
the selection and engagement of the employee;
the payment of wages;
the power of dismissal; and
the employer’s power to control the employee on the means and methods by which the work is accomplished.
A. Selection and Engagement of Employee
Independent contractors often present themselves to possess unique skills, expertise or talent to distinguish them from ordinary employees. The specific selection and hiring of SONZA, because of his unique skills, talent and celebrity status not possessed by ordinary employees, is a circumstance indicative, but not conclusive, of an independent contractual relationship. If SONZA did not possess such unique skills, talent and celebrity status, ABS-CBN would not have entered into the Agreement with SONZA but would have hired him through its personnel department just like any other employee.
B. Payment of Wages
All the talent fees and benefits paid to SONZA were the result of negotiations that led to the Agreement. If SONZA were ABS-CBN’s employee, there would be no need for the parties to stipulate on benefits such as “SSS, Medicare, x x x and 13th month pay” which the law automatically incorporates into every employer-employee contract. Whatever benefits SONZA enjoyed arose from contract and not because of an employer-employee relationship.
SONZA’s talent fees are so huge and out of the ordinary that they indicate more an independent contractual relationship rather than an employer-employee relationship. ABS-CBN agreed to pay SONZA such huge talent fees precisely because of SONZA’s unique skills, talent and celebrity status not possessed by ordinary employees. Obviously, SONZA acting alone possessed enough bargaining power to demand and receive such huge talent fees for his services. The power to bargain talent fees way above the salary scales of ordinary employees is a circumstance indicative, but not conclusive, of an independent contractual relationship.
The payment of talent fees directly to SONZA and not to MJMDC does not negate the status of SONZA as an independent contractor. The parties expressly agreed on such mode of payment. Under the Agreement, MJMDC is the AGENT of SONZA, to whom MJMDC would have to turn over any talent fee accruing under the Agreement.
C. Power of Dismissal
During the life of the Agreement, ABS-CBN agreed to pay SONZA’s talent fees as long as “AGENT and Jay Sonza shall faithfully and completely perform each condition of this Agreement.” Even if it suffered severe business losses, ABS-CBN could not retrench SONZA because ABS-CBN remained obligated to pay SONZA’s talent fees during the life of the Agreement. This circumstance indicates an independent contractual relationship between SONZA and ABS-CBN.
SONZA admits that even after ABS-CBN ceased broadcasting his programs, ABS-CBN still paid him his talent fees. Plainly, ABS-CBN adhered to its undertaking in the Agreement to continue paying SONZA’s talent fees during the remaining life of the Agreement even if ABS-CBN cancelled SONZA’s programs through no fault of SONZA.
The manner by which SONZA terminated his relationship with ABS-CBN is immaterial. Whether SONZA rescinded the Agreement or resigned from work does not determine his status as employee or independent contractor.
D. Power of Control
The control test is the most important test our courts apply in distinguishing an employee from an independent contractor. This test is based on the extent of control the hirer exercises over a worker. The greater the supervision and control the hirer exercises, the more likely the worker is deemed an employee. The converse holds true as well – the less control the hirer exercises, the more likely the worker is considered an independent contractor.
Respondent’s Exercise of Control Over the Means and Methods of Petitioner’s Work
We find that ABS-CBN was not involved in the actual performance that produced the finished product of SONZA’s work. ABS-CBN did not instruct SONZA how to perform his job. ABS-CBN merely reserved the right to modify the program format and airtime schedule “for more effective programming.” ABS-CBN’s sole concern was the quality of the shows and their standing in the ratings. Clearly, ABS-CBN did not exercise control over the means and methods of performance of SONZA’s work.
ABS-CBN’s right not to broadcast SONZA’s show, burdened as it was by the obligation to continue paying in full SONZA’s talent fees, did not amount to control over the means and methods of the performance of SONZA’s work. ABS-CBN could not terminate or discipline SONZA even if the means and methods of performance of his work – how he delivered his lines and appeared on television – did not meet ABS-CBN’s approval. This proves that ABS-CBN’s control was limited only to the result of SONZA’s work, whether to broadcast the final product or not. In either case, ABS-CBN must still pay SONZA’s talent fees in full until the expiry of the Agreement.
No doubt, ABS-CBN supplied the equipment, crew and airtime needed to broadcast the “Mel & Jay” programs. However, the equipment, crew and airtime are not the “tools and instrumentalities” SONZA needed to perform his job. What SONZA principally needed were his talent or skills and the costumes necessary for his appearance. Even though ABS-CBN provided SONZA with the place of work and the necessary equipment, SONZA was still an independent contractor since ABS-CBN did not supervise and control his work. ABS-CBN’s sole concern was for SONZA to display his talent during the airing of the programs.
Respondent’s Imposition of Rules and Standards on Petitioner
Not all rules imposed by the hiring party on the hired party indicate that the latter is an employee of the former. In this case, SONZA failed to show that these rules controlled his performance. We find that these general rules are merely guidelines towards the achievement of the mutually desired result, which are top-rating television and radio programs that comply with standards of the industry.
One could still be an independent contractor although the hirer reserved certain supervision to insure the attainment of the desired result. The hirer, however, must not deprive the one hired from performing his services according to his own initiative.
Exclusivity Clause in the Agreement
Being an exclusive talent does not by itself mean that SONZA is an employee of ABS-CBN. Even an independent contractor can validly provide his services exclusively to the hiring party. In the broadcast industry, exclusivity is not necessarily the same as control.
The hiring of exclusive talents is a widespread and accepted practice in the entertainment industry. This practice is not designed to control the means and methods of work of the talent, but simply to protect the investment of the broadcast station. The broadcast station normally spends substantial amounts of money, time and effort “in building up its talents as well as the programs they appear in and thus expects that said talents remain exclusive with the station for a commensurate period of time.” Normally, a much higher fee is paid to talents who agree to work exclusively for a particular radio or television station. In short, the huge talent fees partially compensates for exclusivity, as in the present case.