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Md. appeals court sets workers’ comp standard for home offices

In a landmark ruling for telecommuters, Maryland’s second-highest court has held that employees injured while leaving their “home office” for a work-related site may qualify for workers’ compensation if working from home is necessary for their employment and is not just personally convenient.

In its reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals said judges and juries must also consider other factors in determining if a home office is a worksite subject to workers’ compensation. These factors include whether the employer accepted, knew or reasonably should have known its employee was working from home; the amount of work performed in the home; and the use of company equipment, including software, by the worker in his or her home.

“Technological innovation enables citizens of Maryland to work for companies located anywhere in the world, at any time, from any place in the state,” Judge Andrea M. Leahy wrote for the court last week.

“We hold that injuries sustained by the employee en route from the employee’s home worksite to another work-related site may arise out of and in the course of employment” and thus qualify for workers’ compensation, Leahy added.

Workers’ compensation attorney James A. Lanier called the ruling significant and potentially applicable to injuries suffered not just during work-related transportation but those sustained inside a worker’s house if the employer and employee agree that work would be conducted from the home.

“An injury at your home office is a compensable claim as long as you are doing the functions of your job at a time when you are expected to be doing them,” Lanier said, citing the court’s decision. “It all comes down to this: What is the agreement between the employer and the employee?”

For example, a worker who injures himself adjusting an internet cable so he can access a work-related site would be eligible for workers’ compensation regardless of whether the incident occurred at corporate headquarters or in a home office under an agreement with the employer, said Lanier, of Warnken LLC in Baltimore.

A closer question would be whether a worker who injures herself grabbing a bite in her kitchen during an employer-accepted work break would be as entitled to workers’ compensation as an employee who slips and falls in the company’s break room, Lanier added.

“It’s going to be very interesting what the (Workers’ Compensation) Commission does,” said Lanier, who was not involved in the Court of Special Appeals case.

The appellate court rendered its decision in vacating a Baltimore County Circuit Court’s pretrial grant of workers’ compensation to a Mount Washington customer service representative.

Ryan Frederick slipped on an icy sidewalk in front of his home while en route to drop his son off at day care on the way to a business appointment for his Minnesota employer in January 2016.

The Court of Special Appeals said a trial must be held to resolve legally significant issues in dispute between Frederick and Schwan Food Co. (as well as its insurer, New Hampshire Insurance Co.) regarding whether Frederick’s house was in fact a home office based on the court’s determinative factors.

Specifically, Frederick and Schwan disagree on whether Frederick’s work of ensuring food deliveries in Maryland was performed at his home or at the delivery sites and whether he used company or personal equipment in the house, the court said.

The trial must also be held to determine if Frederick fractured his leg during the “course of his employment” in light of his acknowledgment that he was heading first to day care and then to Ellicott City to check on Schwan’s food delivery to a Walmart there, the appellate court added.

The arguments favoring Frederick’s home being his office include his daily downloads of internal company communications regarding deliveries, as well as his phone calls with Schwan delivery drivers before leaving his house, the court said. Frederick also argued that Schwan has no office space in Maryland, leaving him no choice but to work at home, the court added.

But Schwan counters that Frederick’s meetings with the company’s delivery personnel are typically not conducted from his home but in grocery store parking lots, with larger meetings held in hotels, the court said. The company also argues that Frederick need not operate out of his home because he can download the company communications anywhere he can connect to WiFi, the court added.

“Significantly, the record does not establish whether or not Schwan acquiesced to Mr. Frederick using his home as a work site, or reasonably should have known of such use,” Leahy wrote in sending the case back for trial. “For example, although Schwan did not provide any local office from which Mr. Frederick could work, Mr. Frederick also admitted that Schwan typically rented space for large work-related meetings and did not reimburse him for mileage he incurred driving to his first accounts. Thus, at the motion for judgment stage, the evidence did not establish, as a matter of law, that Mr. Frederick’s home met the criteria of a home worksite.”

Michael S. Fox, attorney for Schwan and its insurer, said he and his clients are “very pleased” that the Court of Special Appeals has sent the case back for trial on whether Frederick’s house qualified as his home office under the standards set by the court and whether Frederick was injured in the course of his employment.

“Now we finally have some guidance as to whether one’s home can be considered a worksite for purposes of entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits,” said Fox, of Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore. “We are recognizing that there are nontraditional worksites in today’s modern era.”

Blaine M. Kolker, Frederick’s attorney, said Monday that he and his client have not decided whether to ask the Court of Appeals to review the decision and to reinstate the Baltimore County Circuit Court’s award of workers’ compensation or to let the case return for trial.

“It’s an important issue,” Kolker said of the application of home offices to workers’ compensation.

“There are so many people working from home in Maryland,” added Kolker, of Silver Kolker LLP in Baltimore. “To the extent we were looking for some certainty in a rule, we got that accomplished.”

The Workers’ Compensation Commission had rejected Frederick’s request for compensation, summarily stating that he “did not sustain an accidental injury arising out of and in the course of employment.”

Frederick appealed to the Baltimore County Circuit Court, after which Schwan and its insurer sought review by the Court of Special Appeals.

Leahy was joined in the opinion by Judges Michael W. Reed and James P. Salmon, a retired judge sitting by special assignment.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Schwan Food Co. et al. v. Ryan Frederick, No. 1289, September Term 2017.

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