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Lyons v. Chittenden Central Supervisory Union

Supreme Court of Vermont

March 16, 2018

Catherine Lyons
Chittenden Central Supervisory Union

         On Appeal from Commissioner of Labor Anne M. Noonan, Commissioner

          Kevin E. Brown and Michele B. Patton of Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP, Middlebury, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Jason R. Ferreira and Robert G. Reagan of McCormick, Fitzpatrick, Kasper & Burchard, P.C., Burlington, for Defendant-Appellee.

          Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

          DOOLEY, J.

         ¶ 1. Claimant Catherine Lyons appeals a summary judgment decision by the Department of Labor Commissioner (the Commissioner) finding that she did not qualify for workers' compensation benefits for an injury sustained while student teaching at a school in the defendant supervisory union. Because we hold that claimant falls within the statutory definition of an employee for purposes of workers' compensation, we reverse and remand for further proceedings in accord with this opinion.

         ¶ 2. The relevant facts are undisputed. Claimant has a master's degree in early childhood education and taught for six years in New Hampshire. In 2013, she decided to pursue an elementary education teaching license in Vermont. Vermont Agency of Education (AOE) regulations require three basic components for licensure as a teacher: first, the applicant must hold a bachelor's degree in either the liberal arts and sciences or in the area that they will teach; second, they must provide proof of student teaching; and third, the applicant must demonstrate competency in ten specified areas.[1] Vermont Agency of Education, Licensing of Educators and the Preparation of Educational Professionals §§ 5231, 5233, 5235, Code of Vt. Rules 22 000 010, Licensing regulations at the time plaintiff sought licensure required the applicant to complete twelve weeks of student teaching, defined as "supervised, concentrated field experience . . . including an internship, or other concentrated field experience however named, in which the candidate shall gradually assume the full professional roles and responsibilities of an educator." Id. § 5233.1[2]; id. § 5150. To satisfy competency and student teaching requirements, claimant enrolled in a two-semester program at the Upper Valley Educators Institute (UVEI) that prepares enrollees for licensure through classroom placement and seminar-based competency instruction.

         ¶ 3. UVEI's teacher program handbook refers to its trainees as interns; an intern is "a professional with prior experience who is developing his or her talents to become a teacher." Each intern is placed in two different classrooms during the UVEI program, one during the program's fall semester and a second during the spring semester. The intern works with a different mentor-teacher in each classroom, who invites the intern "into the classroom to learn-and begin to practice-the craft of teaching." Interns are placed in the classroom four days each week; on the fifth day, they are required to attend seminars at the UVEI campus. These seminars address the competency requirement for licensure. Total tuition for the program is $15, 000; enrollees also pay a $250 fee for UVEI to help them locate placement classrooms.

         ¶ 4. As an agency-approved educator preparation program, UVEI must comply with AOE regulations governing the way license applicants are placed in student teaching positions. Specifically, student teachers must be placed with a licensed educator who has been trained by the educator preparation program in the methods and strategies taught in the program. Student teaching expectations and the placement process must be included in a handbook, and a written agreement with the placement school must be executed that lists each party's responsibilities. Id. § 5924.3. Pursuant to these regulations, UVEI distributed a Teacher Internship Program Handbook that outlined intern and mentor-teacher responsibilities, and had all placement participants-including the intern, mentor-teacher, placement site representative, and a UVEI-assigned faculty coach-sign a placement contract.

         ¶ 5. Upon enrolling in UVEI's teacher internship program, claimant contacted a kindergarten teacher for whom she had previously substitute taught at one of Chittenden Central Supervisory Union's (CCSU) schools. Claimant and the kindergarten teacher agreed that claimant could complete her first student teaching semester in the teacher's classroom if claimant met the application requirements imposed by CCSU.

         ¶ 6. In a procedure that mimics most job searches, CCSU requires trainee teachers, such as claimant, to submit an application for student teaching on a standard form.[3] Applicants must list their education and experience, answer a series of questions concerning past criminal activity, and write a one-page essay describing their reasons for wanting to teach and commitment to or experience working with children and young people. This application is submitted directly to the principal of the school where a trainee teacher seeks placement and the school then interviews those applicants it is interested in placing. According to the CCSU student teacher application process, "the purpose of the [interview] is to ensure the placement will result in a good match between [the applicant], the school, and the cooperating teacher, which is necessary to increase [the applicant's] chances for success." Supervisory union human resources personnel are not involved in the interview or placement process; instead the selection of student teacher applicants is left to the school principal and classroom teacher.

         ¶ 7. We find it important to note that claimant's position is named and described in different ways in the record. The Commissioner found that defendant considered claimant to be a preservice teacher, a term that includes interns, student teachers, and post-baccalaureates. The policy on which the Commissioner relied refers to claimant's position as a student teacher and her activities as student teaching. Claimant submitted an application for student teaching pursuant to a Student Teacher Application Process. At one point, the application states: "If hired prior to the completion of the background check process, continued employment would be contingent upon satisfactory background check results."

         ¶ 8. As we noted above, the UVEI Teacher Program Handbook defines claimant as an intern. It goes on to say that "[a]n intern has more responsibility, more independence, and more self-direction than most students." The handbook in a number of places describes the intern as working. As an example, the handbook states interns "work with small groups of students, instruct classes, handle crises, and otherwise function as real teachers."

         ¶ 9. After passing through CCSU's application and screening process, claimant, her mentor-teacher, the placement school principal, and claimant's UVEI faculty coach signed a placement contract agreeing to the terms outlined in UVEI's program handbook. The handbook lists the responsibilities of both the UVEI intern and the mentor-teacher; specifically, it requires the intern to work the same hours as their mentor-teacher, to attend staff and planning meetings, as well as in-service days and school activities. Each intern's classroom responsibilities are meant to increase over time, culminating in a one-to-two-week period of solo teaching in the classroom. While interning at her placement school, claimant had a CCSU identification badge and email address, access to confidential student files, and keys to both the school and her mentor-teacher's classroom. However, in agreement with the guidelines in UVEI's program handbook, claimant was not permitted to write any reports or documents that would become part of a student's official record.

         ¶ 10. Claimant injured her back, hip, and leg in a workplace slip and fall accident not long after she began her teaching internship. She filed a workers' compensation claim, which the defendant's insurer contested. Claimant appealed the denial of her claim to the Department of Labor, and the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment on the sole question of whether claimant qualified as an employee under the relevant statutory definition. Neither party disputed that CCSU falls within the statutory definition of an employer for purposes of workers' compensation nor that claimant's injury, if she could be considered an employee, occurred accidentally during the normal course of her employment.

         ¶ 11. The Commissioner issued a written decision granting defendant summary judgment and dismissing claimant's claim for workers' compensation benefits. The Commissioner's decision turned on the undisputed fact that claimant did not receive monetary wages for her work at the defendant supervisory union. The Commissioner found that, though the tripartite agreement between claimant, defendant, and UVEI bore many of the hallmarks of an employment contract, "absent actual or expected payment of some form of remuneration by employer to employee, an employment relationship does not exist, and workers' compensation coverage does not attach." According to the Commissioner, limiting workers' compensation benefits to paid employees implements the statute's underlying "assumption that a worker is gainfully employed at the time of his or her injury" as well as the practical difficulty of monetizing compensation for a worker who is not receiving financial payment. This appeal followed.

         ¶ 12. We review summary judgment decisions "de novo, applying the same standard as the trial court." DeBartolo v. Underwriters at Lloyd's of London, 2007 VT 31, ¶ 8, 181 Vt. 609, 925 A.2d 1018 (mem.). Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." V.R.C.P. 56(a). This appeal concerns a question of law; we review the Commissioner's conclusions regarding questions of law de novo. Smedberg v. Detlef's Custodial Serv., Inc., 2007 VT 99, ¶ 23, 182 Vt. 349, 940 A.2d 674.

         ¶ 13. We owe the Commissioner's interpretation of the workers' compensation program deference because the Legislature has tasked the Commissioner with administration of the program. Letourneau v. A.N. Deringer/Wausau Ins. Co., 2008 VT 106, ¶ 8, 184 Vt. 422, 966 A.2d 133; see also Town of Killington v. Dep't of Taxes, 2003 VT 88, ¶ 5, 176 Vt. 70, 838 A.2d 91 ("Absent a clear and convincing showing to the contrary, decisions made within the expertise of agencies are presumed correct, valid and reasonable." (quotation and alterations omitted)). We will not set aside the Commissioner's interpretation or application of the statute "absent a compelling indication of error." Brown v. W.T. Martin Plumbing & Heating, Inc., 2013 VT 38, ¶ 18, 194 Vt. 12, 72 A.3d 346. Our task is to ensure that a statute's enacting purpose is given effect, and we do so by "examin[ing] and consider[ing] fairly, not just isolated sentences or phrases, but the whole and every part of the statute, . . . together with other statutes standing in pari materia with it, as parts of a unified statutory system." Id. ¶ 20 (quotation omitted).

         ¶ 14. The workers' compensation program has rightly been called a "grand bargain." See P. Gillies, Ruminations: The Centennial of Workers' Compensation in Vermont, 41 Vt. Bar. J. 10 (Summer, 2015). In exchange for no-fault liability, employers guarantee workers accidentally injured during the normal course of employment insurer-provided wage replacement and medical and other benefits. See 21 V.S.A. §§ 618(a)(1), 622. The statute defines a "worker" or "employee" as "an individual who has entered into the employment of, or works under contract of service or apprenticeship with, an employer." Id. § 601(14). As the Commissioner noted, we have never considered whether a preprofessional trainee in a working environment qualifies as a worker or employee under the workers' compensation program. We have, however, held that "the Workmen's Compensation Act, having benevolent objectives, is remedial in nature and must be given a liberal construction; no injured employee should be excluded unless the law clearly intends such an exclusion or termination of benefits." Montgomery v. Brinver Corp., 142 Vt. 461, 463, 457 A.2d 644, 646 (1983).

         ¶ 15. The basic entitlement to workers' compensation is contained in 21 V.S.A. § 618(a)(1): "If a worker receives a personal injury by accident arising out of and in the course of employment by an employer subject to this chapter, the employer or the insurance carrier shall pay compensation in the amounts and to the person hereinafter specified." The Commissioner's decision in this case relies upon two other statutes. The first is 21 V.S.A. § 601(14), which defines worker or employee, and is set out in the foregoing paragraph.[4] The second is 21 V.S.A. § 601(13), which defines wages: " 'Wages' includes bonuses and the market value of board, lodging, fuel, and other advantages which can be estimated in money and which the employee receives from the employer as a part of his or her remuneration . . . ."

         ¶ 16. The Commissioner's decision is based on the rationale that a distinction must be drawn between an employee, who can receive workers' compensation, and a gratuitous worker, who cannot. In addressing this distinction, the Commissioner explored the difference between "remuneration" and "wages, " the key words in § 601(13). It is clear from that section of the statute that "remuneration" is the broader term, with wages being only part of remuneration, such that "anything of value can [conceivably] qualify" as remuneration. The Commissioner concluded that "the opportunity to fulfill [a] state-mandated licensure requirement" is remuneration, [5] but is not wages because "the value of a student teaching internship cannot be estimated 'in money' " as required by § 601(13). The Commissioner then concluded that without wages, a claimant cannot be eligible for either indemnity or vocational rehabilitation benefits under the statutory scheme. The Commissioner also indicated concern that a decision that claimant was entitled to workers' compensation would cut off the right of a volunteer to bring a tort action where an injury was based on negligence for which the employer was responsible.

         ¶ 17. Claimant challenges all steps in the Commissioner's analysis. She argues that she was an employee, worked under a contract of service and as an apprentice, and that wages are not required for any of these prongs of the statutory definition. She further argues that if wages are required, the completion of her student teaching responsibilities to achieve licensure is a sufficient benefit to be wages and the value of that completion can be estimated in money as required by 21 V.S.A. § 601(13).

         ¶ 18. We share the Commissioner's concern that we must minimize the risk of upsetting the balance set by the Legislature between creating a remedy for an injured worker without proof of fault and continuing fault-based liability where appropriate. Thus, we decide this case narrowly and do not reach many of claimant's arguments.[6] There is no dispute that, apart from the issue of wages, there is present here a contract for service, as required in § 601(14) to find claimant was an employee or worker. The parties entered into a formal contract, and its terms specified that claimant would provide specific services, and that specific services would be provided to her. Whatever title is used to describe claimant's position, the relationship between the parties was governed by a service contract.

         ¶ 19. We also agree that claimant received remuneration. We recently defined remuneration for purposes of § 601(13) as payment for services. Lydy v. Trustaff, Inc./Wausau Ins. Co., 2013 VT 44, ¶ 12, 194 Vt. 165, 76 A.3d 150. As the Commissioner decided, this payment could be made in a form other than money. Here, CCSU provided claimant with teaching experience and mentoring necessary for her to become a licensed teacher. We conclude, as the Commissioner did, that this payment qualified as remuneration.

         ¶ 20. Finally, we agree with the Commissioner that claimant must prove that she received wages.[7] The system of workers' compensation provides for the partial replacement of wages as indemnity for injuries from a qualifying accident. Without receipt of wages, there can be no indemnity. We held as much in Wolfe v. Yudichak, a case involving the eligibility for workers' compensation of a university student who worked without compensation for a university volunteer fire department and was seriously injured when a fire engine in which he was riding overturned on the way to a fire. 153 Vt. at 241-42, 571 A.2d at 596. In Wolfe, the university argued that it could not be sued for negligence by the student because he was eligible for workers' compensation. We held that the student was not eligible for workers' compensation for multiple reasons, including that because he received no wages, he could not receive indemnity benefits. We accept that Wolfe controls here, and as the Commissioner held, claimant could not receive any indemnity benefits if she received no wages.[8] With this understanding of the areas of agreement with the decision of the Commissioner, we address the issue before us-whether claimant has received "wages" as defined in 21 V.S.A. § 601(13). This issue depends upon whether the student teaching opportunity was (1) an "other advantage, " and (2) if so, its value could be "estimated in money."

         ¶ 21. Our understanding of both of these questions is greatly aided by the recent decision in Haller v. Champlain College, 2017 VT 86, __ Vt.__, __ A.3d __. Although Haller dealt with the amount of wages earned by a worker, and as a result the amount of compensation the worker would receive based on the amount of wages, the decision construed § 601(13) and applied facts with significant similarities to those before us in this case. In Haller, the College employer offered staff and dependents of staff the opportunity to take courses at the College without paying tuition, and the worker took advantage of this policy by taking a number of courses without paying tuition. When the worker was injured and became eligible for workers' compensation, she claimed that her wages for the period on which the amount of her benefits would be calculated should include the value of these courses. Her argument was that the courses were an "other advantage" and their value could be estimated in money, meeting the requirements of § 601(13). We agreed with both parts of her argument. With respect to the "other advantage" claim we held that the plain meaning of the term included the tuition-free college courses. Haller, 2017 VT 86, ¶ 17. We noted that the statute does not limit advantages to "board, lodging and fuel" and there is no requirement that an "advantage" be provided in money. We held that the free-tuition courses were "clearly an 'advantage' of considerable economic value." Id.

         ¶ 22. We see no distinction between this case and Haller on the question of whether claimant received an advantage in the form of the student teacher position that was meeting the requirement for a teacher's license. The student teaching was of value to CCSU and of considerable economic value to claimant as a means of meeting the licensing requirement. See id. (" 'In computing actual earnings as the beginning point of wage-basis calculations, there should be included not only wages and salary but any thing of value received as consideration for the work, as, for example, tips, bonuses, commissions and room and board, constituting real economic gain to the employee.' " (quoting 2 A. Larson, Larson's Workers' Compensation Law § 93.01(2)(a) (2012) (alteration omitted))). Further, we do not read the Commissioner's decision as inconsistent with this conclusion.

         ¶ 23. This brings us to the second question, whether the value can be "estimated in money." In this summary judgment decision, the Commissioner concluded that the value of the advantage claimant received could not be estimated in money, although she found that if claimant were "able to complete her student teaching activities and thereby fulfilled her licensure requirement, she would have reaped a tangible benefit." The analysis supporting the Commissioner's conclusion, to the extent it can be found in the decision, is found in the Commissioner's identification of the "test" to determine the question: "The test is whether both parties intended the benefit as 'wages.' "[9] Addressing the test, the Commissioner summarized that CCSU's human resources director in her deposition stated that the district never intended to create an employment relationship with any student teacher, including claimant. On the other hand, the Commissioner summarized that the relevant evidence offered by claimant was that coemployees were incredulous to learn that CCSU had denied claimant's workers' compensation claim because claimant was not an employee. Rejecting claimant's evidence, the Commissioner held that claimant had not raised a material issue of fact to show the test was met and granted summary judgment for CCSU.

         ¶ 24. Although we accept that whether the value of claimant's student teacher course can be estimated in money is a question of fact in some circumstances, we cannot accept that the test of that fact is whether the parties intended an employment relationship.[10] We are applying a specific and detailed statutory scheme that contains specific definitions of "employment, " "wages, " "worker, " and "employee." See 21 V.S.A. §§ 601(4), (13), (14). Nowhere in these statutes has the Legislature stated that the intent of the parties controls whether there is an employment relationship, whether there are wages, or whether the value of an advantage can be estimated in money. It is not contained in Haller, our most recent decision defining the elements of wages. Our responsibility is to apply the statutory language, not to create and employ a new element not contained in that language. Under our standard of review, we find compelling indication of error in the Commissioner's decision.

         ¶ 25. Our rejection of the Commissioner's rationale does not, however, determine our mandate. As we stated above, we agree that the Commissioner was faced with a question whether the value of claimant's advantage could be estimated in money. Both parties argued why the value could be or could not be estimated in money, but neither provided any factual support for the argument. Apparently, both believed that the question was one of law and no evidence was necessary. We can resolve the question here only if we can conclude as a matter of law that the value of claimant's advantage could or could not be estimated in money.

         ¶ 26. There are a number of important points that bear on this issue. The first comes from Haller. That decision restated that the value of an advantage must be the value to the claimant rather than the cost to the employer. It found that the value in that case could be measured by the cost to a student of each of the courses that the claimant received without paying any tuition. See Haller, 2017 VT 86, ¶ 16 ("The 'market value' of the courses, and the associated credits, is readily discernible in this case.").

         ¶ 27. The second point involves the unique circumstances of this case. Here, claimant is arguing that she received an advantage, but the facts show that she paid for the ability to receive that advantage, not to CCSU but instead to another organization, UVEI, with which she contracted to meet the requirements of teacher licensure. The statute defines wages as advantages "which the employee receives from the employer as part of his or her remuneration." 21 V.S.A. § 601(13) (emphasis added). For purposes of our analysis, CCSU is claimant's employer, and it is providing the advantage of the student teacher position. It is this advantage we must value, without regard to claimant's payment to another to facilitate the advantage.

         ¶ 28. Third, the statute requires only that the value be "estimated." This is consistent with 21 V.S.A. § 650(a), which provides alternative methods of determining "average weekly wages" on which compensation amounts are calculated where the worker has been employed for only a short time or because of the terms of employment "it is impractical to compute the rate of remuneration." Thus, the estimate in money of the value of wages demonstrates that wages exist and are capable of rough measurement, but the actual compensation level may have a different basis.

         ¶ 29. In this case, the value of the twelve weeks of student teaching must be analyzed to determine the value to claimant rather than the cost to the school district. Claimant had completed her formal education and was qualified as a teacher, although she was not licensed to teach the content and at the grade level where she found that employment opportunities were available. Her twelve weeks as a student teacher would enable her to obtain the license she needed to teach at a grade level at which jobs were available. We are cognizant that courts in other jurisdictions have decided workers' compensation eligibility cases based on similar factual circumstances. In looking to other jurisdictions, we recognize that there are significant differences in how jurisdictions define employment and eligibility for workers' compensation. For example, the requirement that advantages be capable of value estimated in money to determine wages appears in the statutes of only a few states, although the concept may be present in a different form. See, e.g., Idaho Stat. § 72-102(33). We have often turned to Professor Larson in his often-cited treatise on workers' compensation law to summarize the law around the country. On the question before us, he summarizes the law as follows:

The element of payment, to satisfy the requirement of a contract of hire, need not be in money, but may be in anything of value. Board, room, and training, such as might be furnished a student nurse or hospital intern or laboratory assistant trainee, or a graduate student, or student teacher are treated as the equivalent of wages.

5 A. Larson, Larson's Workers Compensation Law § 65.03(1) (2016). In addition, we are particularly persuaded by the following decisions, which are on point and support our decision: Betts v. Ann Arbor Public Schools, 271 N.W.2d 498, 500-01 (Mich. 1978) (holding student teacher received remuneration, "[i]n return, plaintiff was paid in the form of training, college credits towards graduation, and the meeting of the prerequisites for a state provisional certificate"); Walls v. North Mississippi Medical Center, 568 So.2d 712, 718 (Miss. 1990) (holding student nurse received remuneration and stating, "Walls, as an apprentice, rendered services to the hospital with the primary purpose of learning the 'business' of the hospital necessary to acquire her license as an LPN").

         ¶ 30. What separates this case from others where a claimant may have lost an educational opportunity as a result of an accident is the direct tie between the internship and a state license to teach. In this case of a person who has the required educational background and is an experienced teacher, the tie is so direct that the value of the internship can be estimated as the value of the license. Some courts have held that a professional license is an asset, capable of valuation by determining the earning capacity that is created by the license reduced to present value, primarily for distributing marital assets on divorce. See Brough v. Brough, 727 N.Y.S.2d 555, 557-58 ...

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