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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds that Construction Industry Employee is Not Independent Contractor and is Eligible for Workers’ Compensation Benefits

Recently, the Commonwealth Court affirmed a decision by a workers’ compensation judge (WCJ) granting a claim petition on behalf of an injured housepainter. The issue in this case was whether the housepainter was an independent contractor or an employee, under the Construction Workplace Misclassification Act. The employer denied that he and the claimant had an employment relationship, arguing that the claimant was an independent contractor and therefore not eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

The WCJ held a hearing in which the employer testified that the claimant responded to an advertisement seeking a painter, informing the employer that he had 20 years of experience in painting and roof work. The employer and the claimant discussed the terms of hire, including the rate of pay. The employer informed the claimant that he would need to sign a document before working. This document was an independent/sub-contractor agreement (Agreement).

The claimant used his own materials, including brushes, painter pants, and kneepads. His employer provided ladders and other necessary equipment.  For three days, after meeting at the employer’s home, the two men traveled together to the job site. After brief instructions on the first day regarding cleaning and painting the front part of the roof, the employer did not give the claimant work directions.

The claimant testified that he slipped and fell off of the roof at the job site, hitting his head on the sidewalk. He received stitches and was discharged from the hospital that day. According to the employer, the independent/sub-contractor agreement was signed after the claimant was released from the hospital. The claimant testified that he “might have” signed the Agreement, but he did not identify the signature on the Agreement as his own. Following the accident, he did not return to work, and he underwent surgeries on his left ankle and right knee. He was not released to regular-duty work.

The WCJ determined that the claimant had not entered into the Agreement when he was injured. He was the employer’s employee, not an independent contractor. The WCJ also found that the claimant proved he had sustained a work-related injury and that he was unable to return to work as a painter due to his injury. He was awarded benefits and all reasonable and necessary medical expenses. The employer appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, which affirmed, and he then petitioned for review.

The issue before the Commonwealth Court was whether the Construction Workplace Misclassification Act (CWMA) requires that individuals sign written contracts prior to an injury to be considered independent contractors. The court stated the general rules of law concerning workers’ compensation. Benefits are available to those injured in the course and scope of employment when the injury results in a loss of earning power. First, to receive benefits, a claimant must prove an employer and employee relationship. The court stated that under the CWMA, the term “employee” has the same meaning as the applicable section of the Workers’ Compensation Act, which states that an employee performs services for another person for a valuable consideration.

In the case at hand, the claimant worked for the employer for several days, in exchange for payment. He did not sign the Agreement until after his injury, and after he had worked for the employer for several days. Under the applicable section of the CWMA, an individual in the construction industry is an independent contractor only if he has a written contract to perform such services. But in this case, no written contract existed between the claimant and the employer during the claimant’s work for the employer. The claimant was not, therefore, an independent contractor under the CWMA.

Furthermore, the court stated that while the claimant later signed the Agreement, this did not change his employment status because the written contact did not exist at the time of his injury. Here, the court also rejected the employer’s contention that the Agreement confirmed the oral agreement that he and the claimant entered into before the claimant was injured.

The court affirmed the holding of the WCAB, ruling that the claimant was an employee and not an independent contractor.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Leadbetter made clear that the holding applied narrowly and that the elements set forth in the CWMA to set forth independent contractor status must be met before the claimant is injured. This opinion also states that other relevant elements necessary to show independent contractor status were not met here, including that putative employers must show the individual maintains a separate business location from the person for whom services are being performed. Even if a written contract had been signed before the claimant’s injury, Judge Leadbetter stated that the claimant would not have been considered an independent contractor because each of the criteria under the CWMA was not proven.

At the Needle Law Firm, we help injured employees pursue their claims for benefits. Our workers’ compensation attorneys can be contacted by calling 1.570-344-1266.

More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Holds An Employee’s Attempts to Render Aid to an Injured Co-Worker Fall Within the Course and Scope of His Employment, Scranton Personal Injury Lawyer Blog, July 27, 2015

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Affirms Death Benefits for Common-Law Spouse of Fatally Injured Worker, Scranton Personal Injury Lawyer Blog, May 14, 2015

 

 

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