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Home Offices and Workers’ Compensation

When does an employee’s home qualify as a work site for purposes of Maryland’s Workers’ Compensation Act?  That was the question of first impression the Maryland Court of Special Appeals (COSA) considered in Schwan Food Co. v. Frederick, decided last month.  Given the proliferation of technology that permits employees to work for anyone, from anywhere, at any time, it is a little surprising it took this long for an appellate court to take up this issue.

Ryan Frederick (“Frederick”) worked as a customer service representative for Schwan Food Company (“Schwan”).  Schwan is based in Minnesota.  It has no offices in Maryland.  To perform his job, Frederick used his personal car to drive to various grocery stores in Maryland, where he would meet delivery drivers hauling Schwan’s product and receive deliveries.  He also met with grocery store managers to talk about things like shelf space, product placement, and inventory quantity.  Schwan reimbursed Frederick for mileage for travel between his first and last accounts of a day, but Frederick did not receive mileage for travel to his first account of the day.

Fredrick’s home office consisted of his personal computer and printer set up on his dining room table.  As a Schwan employee, Frederick received a discount on his home internet service.  Schwan provided Frederick with a small handheld computer to complete work-related tasks at home or on the go.  He could complete these tasks anywhere, provided he had internet access.  Schwan also mailed Frederick work materials, such as grocery coupons and display posters.  Frederick stored these items at his home, because there was nowhere else to keep them.  Frederick usually met with store personnel or other sales representatives in grocery store parking lots.  When a large meeting was required, Schwan typically would rent a room in a hotel or library.

Frederick testified that he routinely performed work-related tasks before leaving home for his first account.  He used the handheld computer to download his route for the day, and then he used that information to communicate and coordinate with delivery drivers and other customer service representatives.

On the morning of January 28, 2016, while he was still at home, Frederick used his employer-provided handheld computer to download his route for the day.  He had contacted some drivers and sent some emails.  He planned to drop off his son at daycare on the way to his first account, the Walmart in Ellicott City.  According to Frederick, he was leaving the house to work, and the daycare was a block and a half off the route from his house to Walmart.    On the way to the car, Frederick slipped on some black ice on the sidewalk by his car and injured his right leg.

Frederick filed a workers’ compensation claim.  Schwan claimed Frederick’s injury was not compensable because he was not yet at work and the trip to daycare was a personal errand.  The Workers’ Compensation Commission agreed and denied Frederick benefits, finding he did not sustain an accidental injury arising out of and in the course of employment.  Frederick took an appeal to the Circuit Court for Baltimore County.

There was a jury trial.  After all evidence was submitted, the Circuit Court granted Frederick’s motion for judgment and did not send the case to the jury.  The Circuit Court concluded that Frederick had been working from his home office before leaving to drive to his first account, and therefore the injury arose out of and in the course of his employment because the trip between his home and the Walmart was travel between work sites.

To be compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act, an injury must be sustained “in the course of employment.”  An injury is in the course of employment when it occurs: (1) during the period of employment; (2) at a place where the employee is reasonably expected to be while working; and (3) while the employee is fulfilling job duties or being engaged in something incident thereto.  In other words, there are time, place, and activity components that must be considered to determine whether an injury is suffered in the course of employment.

In Frederick’s case, each of the elements was disputed but the place component was particularly important because it heavily influences the analysis of the other two components.  Frederick’s injury likely would be compensable if his home qualified as a work site.  If Fredrick’s home office was not a work site, and he was not working until he arrived at his first account, the “coming and going” rule might preclude his claim.  Under the coming and going rule, injuries are not considered sustained in the course of employment if they occur while an employee is going to or from his or her place of work.  So, injuries suffered on an employee’s commute to work generally are not compensable, but there are important exceptions, including some that might have applied to Frederick.

The law is well-settled that an employee’s home does not transform into a qualifying work site merely because the employee chooses to work at home for personal convenience.  But what about in closer cases?  The COSA held that whether an employee’s home qualifies as a work site under Maryland workers’ compensation law is established by three criteria:  (1) the quantity and regularity of worked performed at home; (2) the continuing presence of work equipment at home; and (3) the special circumstances of the particular employment that make it necessary and not merely personally convenient to work at home.  The COSA added that under this third prong, the fact-finder should consider whether the employer acquiesced to the employee regularly using his or her home as a work site, or reasonably should have known the employee was regularly using the home as a work site.

The COSA concluded that Frederick’s case should have been sent to the jury, because there were several disputes of fact, including whether Frederick’s home qualified as a home work site.  Regarding the quantity and regularity of work performed at home, Frederick testified that he routinely worked from home in the mornings before leaving for his first account, but the court noted he held meetings in grocery store parking lots or rented rooms.  There was little work equipment in the home except for coupons and posters.  Frederick set up his personal computer and printer on his dining room table.  Even though Schwan did not have offices in the area, the COSA determined that a jury could have determined that the work Frederick performed at home was for his personal convenience.

The COSA also found it significant that the record did not show whether Schwan acquiesced to Frederick using his home as a work site, or reasonably should have known that he did.  Why this would not be obvious when Schwan had no local offices is not clear, but the COSA thought that Schwan renting space for large work-related meetings and not reimbursing Frederick for his mileage between his home and first account was evidence that Schwan did not know Frederick was working from home on a regular basis.  Therefore, the court felt, it should have been left to the jury to determine whether Fredrick’s house was a work site for purposes of workers’ compensation law.

Even under the test adopted by the COSA, I think the Circuit Court got it right.

Schwan Food Co. v. Ryan Frederick, No. 1289, Sept. Term, 2017

 

 

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