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Perrault v. Chittenden County Transportation Authority

Supreme Court of Vermont

May 25, 2018

Joanne Perrault
Chittenden County Transportation Authority

          On Appeal from Commissioner of Labor

          Lindsay H. Kurrle, Commissioner.

          Christopher McVeigh of McVeigh Skiff, LLP, Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Jennifer K. Moore and Christina Rainville of Ellis Boxer & Blake PLLC, Springfield, for Defendant-Appellee.

          PRESENT: Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ., and Burgess, J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned.

          CARROLL, J.

         ¶ 1. Claimant Joanne Perrault appeals the Commissioner of Labor's decision on summary judgment denying her workers' compensation benefits. On appeal, claimant argues that she was an employee of defendant Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) for the purposes of workers' compensation and, therefore, is entitled to benefits. We hold that, because claimant did not receive wages, she cannot be considered a statutory employee as that term is defined for the application of workers' compensation. We accordingly affirm.[1]

         ¶ 2. The following facts are undisputed. CCTA provides a variety of public transportation services within its operating region, including bus service. CCTA also runs a program that provides transportation to medical, social services, and other appointments for eligible riders living outside CCTA's regular bus routes. This program relies on "volunteer" drivers to use their personal vehicles to transport riders. CCTA provides insurance on drivers' vehicles on a secondary basis and encourages drivers to carry more than the minimum required insurance and to name CCTA as an additional insured on their personal vehicle insurance policies. Drivers in this program are required to meet standards set by CCTA and are subject to certain restrictions, which are similar to the restrictions governing CCTA's regular drivers. For example, all CCTA drivers, whether in the volunteer program or otherwise, are required to participate in trainings, are subject to discipline including dismissal, and must undergo a background check. Drivers in the volunteer program are required to refrain from smoking and using handheld devices while driving, must keep a home telephone and report traffic tickets to CCTA, and may not discuss politics with riders.

         ¶ 3. Potential volunteer drivers must complete an application, which includes the background check mentioned above. CCTA also performs a vehicle inspection on potential volunteer drivers' vehicles. Once through the application process, a volunteer driver is governed by CCTA's volunteer manual. This manual, in addition to explaining the restrictions and requirements discussed above, also states that the manual should not be understood to mean that any employment contract exists between CCTA and the volunteer driver. The manual directs volunteer drivers to record and submit to CCTA the time that they spend waiting for riders. Drivers are also directed to submit a record of miles driven to CCTA; specifically, drivers are directed to record mileage from the time a driver leaves his or her home until the driver returns to his or her home. Drivers receive money from CCTA based on the miles driven in a given period and calculated at the federal mileage rate. The CCTA manual refers to this monetary payment as reimbursement and states that CCTA will perform random checks to verify the accuracy of mileage submissions. This is the only monetary or other exchange between CCTA and drivers in the volunteer program.

         ¶ 4. Claimant applied to be a driver in CCTA's volunteer program in 2014. She wrote in her application that her volunteer work as a guardian ad litem was her only work at the time, that she had spent "[t]oo much time as volunteer w/o pay, " and that she "[n]eed[ed] [a] little extra." Claimant was accepted as a driver with the volunteer program on July 10, 2014. During her time as a driver for CCTA, claimant received an average of $265.49 per week from CCTA, calculated on the basis of claimant's mileage at the federal mileage rate. This amount became part of claimant's regular, weekly household budget.

         ¶ 5. On December 1, 2015, claimant had an automobile accident. At the time of the accident, she was driving a CCTA rider to an appointment. Claimant sustained significant injuries in the accident, including a broken neck at the third and fourth vertebrae, a fractured spine, and broken ribs. She subsequently sought workers' compensation benefits.

         ¶ 6. CCTA filed a motion for summary judgment with the Department of Labor regarding claimant's status as an "employee" for purposes of a workers' compensation award, which the Commissioner granted, determining that claimant could not be considered an employee of CCTA, and thus was ineligible for workers' compensation benefits. The Commissioner's decision turned on the conclusion that the per mile payment claimant received from CCTA constituted reimbursement, which the Commissioner concluded does not fall within the statutory definition of wages, and that without wages, claimant was a gratuitous volunteer rather than an employee. Claimant appealed this decision and the Commissioner certified the following question for this Court's review: "As a matter of law, was Claimant an employee of Defendant, as defined in 21 V.S.A. § 601(14), at the time of her December 1, 2015 injury?"

         ¶ 7. The question certified in this case presents an issue of pure law, which this Court considers de novo. When we consider the meaning of a statute, "our paramount goal is to give effect to the Legislature's intent." Haller v. Champlain Coll., 2017 VT 86, ¶ 10, ___ Vt. ___, 177 A.3d 497 (quotation and alterations omitted). That said, within the context of workers' compensation, "absent a compelling indication of error, " we will defer to the Commissioner's interpretation and application of the statutory framework. Lydy v. Trustaff, Inc., 2013 VT 44, ¶ 4, 194 Vt. 165, 76 A.3d 150 (quotation omitted). Our review of the Commissioner's interpretation and application is guided by the purpose of Vermont's workers' compensation laws, which are "remedial in nature and must be liberally construed to provide injured employees with benefits unless the law is clear to the contrary." St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Surdam, 156 Vt. 585, 590, 595 A.2d 264, 266 (1991). Accordingly, "we will not affirm an interpretation that is unjust or unreasonable." Clodgo v. Rentavision, Inc., 166 Vt. 548, 550, 701 A.2d 1044, 1045 (1997).

         ¶ 8. Claimant's argument on appeal begins with her interpretation of the definitions of employee and employer for purposes of workers' compensation. She argues that her relationship with CCTA bears all the indicia of an employment relationship, including satisfaction of the wage requirement, and that the Commissioner erred by granting CCTA summary judgment because the record included disputed material facts regarding whether claimant was a CCTA employee. See V.R.C.P. 56(a) ("The court shall grant summary judgment 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."). She argues that the question of whether she can be considered an employee was properly a jury question because, first, the CCTA manual is ambiguous, and its disavowal of an employment relationship between CCTA and volunteer drivers should not be dispositive on the employment question, and second, that she intended CCTA's mileage payments to serve as wages, an intent which CCTA was aware of and did not rebut at the time claimant filed her application. She also suggests that the Commissioner erred by not considering whether her relationship with CCTA met the criteria of any one of several tests of employment, including the nature of the business test and the right to control test.

         ¶ 9. Claimant's argument that the record included disputed material facts rests on a faulty premise-the question of whether an employment relationship exists, and whether therefore a party can be considered a statutory employer or employee for purposes of workers' compensation, does not turn on whether a common law, contractual employee-employer relationship exists between the parties. Thus, neither the volunteer manual, even if it was considered dispositive on CCTA's intent to form an employment relationship, nor claimant's intent to consider payments received from CCTA as wages controls the outcome here. Given our decision, discussed below, that CCTA's mileage payments are reimbursement and fall outside the category of wages, which is a threshold element to find a statutory employment relationship under the first prong of the ...

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