ANALYSIS OF FEBRUARY 14, 2019 SUPREME COURT OPINION
(Posted February 14, 2019) Looking for a last-minute gift for your Valentine? I probably can’t help you with that, unless your sweetheart is a Workers’ Comp defense lawyer. If that’s the case, run off a copy of Jeffreys v. Uninsured Employer’s Fund and present it to him or her. It’s your call whether to draw hearts and arrows on it.
This is an appeal about the statutory-employer doctrine. The claimant worked for an unlicensed contractor who had agreed to relocate and renovate an old school building in Pittsylvania County. The contractor was hired by a nonprofit historical society that was loosely affiliated with a local church.
The claimant sustained injuries while working on the church building. He filed a claim for Workers’ Compensation benefits, naming as respondents the society and one of its members, plus the church. None of those respondents had Comp insurance, so the Uninsured Employer’s Fund entered the fray.
A deputy commissioner entered an award finding that the claimant was the direct employee of the society and its member, and that the society was part of the church. The Commission set aside the award against the individual member, because she exerted no control over his work, but otherwise affirmed benefits. After a quick trip to the CAV and a remand for more factfinding, the Commission ruled in favor of the society and the church, finding insufficient evidence of control. On the statutory-construction issue, the Commission found “no evidence the Church and Historical Society were in the construction business,” so that doctrine got the claimant nowhere.
The case returned to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the denial of benefits. The justices granted a writ, and today they affirm.
Before addressing the merits, today’s opinion explores the premise that the Comp Act is remedial and should be given a liberal construction. That’s true as far as it goes, Justice Kelsey writes for a unanimous court, but it doesn’t mean that the claimant automatically wins, or that the Commission or the courts can basically rewrite the Act by liberally interpreting it.
This seems to me to be parallel to other rules of construction in one sense. For example, in contractual-interpretation cases, there’s a rule that calls for construing language against the drafter. But that rule is a sort of last resort; if the language is clear, you can’t change it by construction or interpretation. It’s the same in the statutory context. You only resort to rules of construction or interpretation if applying the plain language doesn’t resolve the issue.
The court today rules that the Court of Appeals wasn’t plainly wrong in ruling that the facts here were consistent with a finding that the church and society weren’t in the building-renovation business. That, in turn, means that the claimant can’t get benefits from those organizations.
For whatever reason, the claimant didn’t name his direct employer, the unlicensed contractor, as a respondent to his Comp claim. An employer-employee relationship probably existed there, but since the claimant chose not to seek benefits from him, that issue never arises here.
I’ll confess to one small degree of surprise: I don’t see why the justices chose to take this appeal, and to decide it by published opinion. From my review, it appears to break no new ground. By statute, the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the CAV’s Workers’ Comp rulings unless one of two exceptions applies: either there’s “a substantial constitutional question” at the heart of the matter, or else the case carries significant precedential value.
There’s no real constitutional question here. The claimant makes an oblique stab at raising one, claiming that because the CAV got the facts wrong, that denied his right to due process. The justices swat this aside in a footnote. As for precedential value, my reading of this opinion convinces me that this holding fits squarely within the previous Comp caselaw. Of course, the simple answer to the question why the court took this case for merits decision is because at least two members of the writ panel voted to take it.