Notes on a Recent Maine Supreme Judicial Court Decision
While people were focused on the tax bill in Congress, the Alabama Senate election, Christmas shopping, Hanukkah, etc., the Maine Supreme Judicial Court (often called the Law Court) on last Tuesday issued a decision on a workers’ compensation case. The case, Huff v. Regional Transportation Program, hinged on an issue of law rather than a dispute about the facts. Specifically, the controversy concerned whether Larry Huff was an employee or a volunteer; if he was a volunteer, then the other facts about his injury claim become moot under workers’ compensation law because an employee-employer relationship is a basic requirement for a claim to have any validity.
Huff was injured in a motor vehicle crash while driving for RTP, a non-profit organization that transports disabled, elderly, and low-income Mainers with drivers who are either employees or volunteers. He was designated a volunteer, and RTP reimbursed him for mileage to defray the costs associated with fuel, maintenance, and other motor vehicle expenses. He was not paid a salary or hourly wage, was not provided fringe benefits, and was not otherwise compensated for his services.
The Maine Workers’ Compensation Board, in an ALJ’s decree and then in an appellate decision, concluded that Huff was a volunteer and therefore ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits connected to his motor vehicle accident. The Law Court affirmed those decisions, agreeing, in essence, that modest mileage reimbursement to someone who is designated a volunteer is not enough to constitute payment for services and make that volunteer an employee.
The Court stated that the outcome might be different if a supposed volunteer were provided greater consideration for his or her services, but this was not that case. “There may be a case where the reimbursement rate for mileage is so high, or the receipt of other benefits is so great, that a reasonable interpretation of the Workers’ Compensation Act would compel us to conclude that the reimbursement for those services constituted payment for services.” (This kind of statement is referred to as dictum by lawyers and judges, by the way.) Ergo, one day another claim may come down the pike that compels the Board or the Court to set some guidelines to help distinguish volunteers who receive some amount of cost reimbursement from actual employees.