Home Health Worker Not an Employee, says Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court

As we have addressed in the past, the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act applies to most “employees” in the State of Pennsylvania.  It does not, however, apply to “independent contractors.”  Often the line of demarcation between the two classes is blurry.  It becomes even more blurry when the findings of a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) are disregarded by appellate courts.

Recently, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued a decision in the matter of Edwards v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Epicure Home Care, Inc.).  Here, the injured worker was a home health aide, who was hurt when she fell down the steps at the residence of one of her clients.  The defense to the Claim Petition filed by the injured worker was not a medical one, but, instead, was simply that the injured worker was an “independent contractor,” and not an “employee.”

In litigating the Claim Petition, the issue of the employee/employer relationship was “bifurcated” (litigated separately prior to litigating all of the aspects of the case).  The testimony of the injured worker, and a representative of the employer, was considered by the WCJ on the bifurcated issue.  The WCJ concluded that the injured worker was, in fact, an employee, and made the following findings of fact:

“Claimant’s hours, wages and the manner in which she performed her job were all set out, controlled and defined by [Company]. At the time of hire, Claimant was provided guidelines which provided instructions on what the employee was to wear, instructions on the personal services to be provided, instructions on maintaining records on arrival and departure times, instructions to never leave the patient without express permission, instructions on when and how wage payment is to be made and instructions to never use cell phones while at work. Claimant’s wages are also set by [Company]. Once a client has retained [Company], a fee schedule containing both the fees to be paid to [Company] and the caregiver is mailed to the client. Billing and invoices are also controlled by [Company]. And Claimant also received instructions from [Company] on the confidentiality to be maintained regarding the identity of clients, the nature of care to be provided and what illness or maladies the client suffered from. [President] himself testified that the work … Claimant performed was unskilled in nature. [President] also testified that [Company] was able to terminate … Claimant or any other aide and replace them at any given time.”

The case was then litigated in full, and the WCJ ultimately granted the Claim Petition and awarded benefits to the injured worker.  This decision was reversed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) upon appeal.  The WCAB believed this case was similar to a prior decision by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, Fletcher v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Saia d/b/a Visiting Angels), and that the WCJ here incorrectly found the injured worker to be an employee.

On appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the Court first acknowledged they “are bound by the WCJ’s credibility determinations.”  Indeed, the Court went on to note that “(t)he WCJ’s authority over questions of credibility, conflicting evidence and evidentiary weight is unquestioned.” The Court then, unfortunately, did exactly what they just said they could not do, and joined the WCAB in reweighing the evidence.  The decision of the WCAB was affirmed.

After reviewing all of the various factors present in this complicated and fact-specific analysis, the Court concluded that, as noted by the WCAB, this case is substantially similar to Fletcher and the injured worker was not an “employee.”

As observed in the concise and well-reasoned dissent authored by Senior Judge Friedman, the Court was just improperly usurping the authority of the WCJ.  The Fletcher decision was actually unreported (and thus was not even controlling authority requiring that it be followed).  Moreover, there were significant factual distinctions between the two cases and there was more than enough evidence of record to support the findings of the WCJ (which was the correct standard the Court should have used).  The Court also failed to note that in Fletcher, the WCJ found no employee/employer relationship, so the evidence required to support the finding would not be the same as the WCJ here finding the opposite.

Though the Court conceded that a written agreement, stating that the injured worker was an “independent contractor,” was not binding, the Court still drew significance from the document.  This author would suggest such a self-serving document should have had no relevance, as it conflicted with the actual factual relationship of the parties.  This was hardly an arm’s length transaction between equal sides.  The injured worker had no business apart from working for this employer, and had no ability to negotiate the terms of the agreement.  Once again, the WCJ had this document to consider and gave it the weight he felt appropriate.  It was not the right, or the place, of the Court to accord the document more weight.