Almost a year ago, Local Law 140 of 2016, the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, took effect in New York City. The law establishes and enhances protections for freelance workers—individuals hired or retained as an independent contractor by a hiring party—regardless of immigration status. The law is intended to help solve an all too common problem faced by freelancers: non-payment or late payment for their work. Under the law, freelancers have a right to a written contract, timely and full payment for services rendered, and freedom from retaliation for exercising their rights. The law establishes penalties for violations of these rights, as well as statutory damages, double damages, injunctive relief, and attorneys’ fees. Individual causes of action are adjudicated in state court.

The law also requires the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs’ Office of Labor Policy & Standards (OLPS) to provide a court navigation program. Court navigators field inquiries from freelancers about their rights under the law and provide them with resources so that freelancers can resolve their claims on their own. The law is meant to alleviate some of the intimidation that most people, even those who are represented by a lawyer, feel when confronted with the prospect of proceeding to court.

The civil justice system might be the best way for freelancers to vindicate their rights against an unscrupulous hiring party. If a freelancer files a lawsuit against a hiring party, the hiring party has to respond or the freelancer could win the case on default. Once in court the freelancer has the chance to settle their claims or pursue their case to final judgment.

Freelancers may assume that pursuing a case in court is not worth it because of the cost of paying an attorney that could be more than the money that is owed from the hiring party. In fact, however, the Freelance Isn’t Free laws contain “fee-shifting” provisions requiring the court to award attorneys’ fees in addition to enhanced damages if a freelancer successfully proves their claims. This means that many attorneys might be willing to take cases at lower rates or lower retainer fees because if the freelancer wins, the hiring party has to pay the freelancer’s attorney.

Even if a freelancer does not find an attorney to take their case they can still file a lawsuit against the hiring party. No one needs an attorney to file a lawsuit and many people proceed in court as unrepresented litigants. And the process of filing a lawsuit on without an attorney is more straightforward than one might expect. Most individuals in New York City who have cases claiming damages for money that equal $25,000 or less can file their case in one of the New York City Civil Courts. The NYC Civil Courts are essentially the “people’s court” (without the TV drama) where ordinary people file and adjudicate their claims. There is a civil court in every borough of the city; it is accessible, and court cases progress on a relatively expedited scheduled. This means that a case should not drag on for years and a decision should be rendered within a few court appearances.

Freelancers who want to learn more about their rights, how to vindicate those rights if they are violated, and the resources available to find legal help go to the Freelance Isn’t Free Event on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, from 6 – 8 p.m. The event is FREE. Freelancers will learn about the Freelance Isn’t Free Act from New York City Department of Consumer Affairs’ Office of Labor Policy & Standards — the agency that administers the Freelancer Isn’t Free Act – and from experienced civil court practitioners about the court process and the resources available to help find an attorney to take their case.