Supreme Judicial Court Discusses Competing Statutory Definitions of “Employee”

On May 10, 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court held in Camargo’s Case (SJC-12368) that in determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor for workers’ compensation purposes, the definition of “employee” from the workers’ compensation statute, G.L. c. 152, § 1, must be applied, as opposed to the definition from the independent contractor statute, G.L. c. 149, § 148B.  Applying the appropriate definition, the court determined the plaintiff was an independent contractor and therefore not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.

The plaintiff contracted with defendant Publishers Circulation Fulfillment, Inc. (“PCF”) as a newspaper delivery agent. After she was injured delivering newspapers and ultimately relieved of her services, she sought workers’ compensation benefits, which PCF denied on the basis that she was not an employee.  The matter was then brought to the Department of Industrial Accidents (“Department”) which is responsible for resolving workers’ compensation disputes.  The Department applied the workers’ compensation statute’s definition of “employee” and found that the claimant was an independent contractor ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits. The Plaintiff appealed, contending that the Department should have applied the independent contractor statute’s definition of “employee.”

Historically, the Department has applied the workers’ compensation statute’s definition of “employee” as well as a common law twelve (12) factor test to decide if workers are employees or independent contractors. The court affirmed this practice.  In reaching its conclusion, the court pointed out that the independent contractor statute excludes any reference to workers’ compensation benefits.  If the Legislature had intended for that statute to apply to workers’ compensation claims, it would have included language to that effect.

The court warned of the consequences of having numerous statutory definitions of “employee.” The court listed four Massachusetts laws with competing definitions of an “employee”: the workers’ compensation law, the independent contractor law, an unemployment insurance law, and a law on withholding taxes on wages.  Workers may qualify as employees for one purpose, but an independent contractor for another, making it difficult for them to comprehend their rights.  Accordingly, the court implored the Legislature to harmonize these laws or provide more guidance to workers.

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This update is provided for informational purposes only  and should not be considered legal advice.