Appeal from Commissioner of Labor
Lindsay H. Kurrle, Commissioner.
Christopher McVeigh of McVeigh Skiff, LLP, Burlington, for
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.
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.
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
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 ...