Defining 'Employment'

Who is a “volunteer” and who is an “employee”? The defense of “non-employment” is one of the few affirmative defenses left under the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act. This case explores the distinction between and ‘employee’ (whose injuries are compensable) and a ‘volunteer’ (for whom there is no workers’ compensation liability.)

The salient facts of the Flores v. Paragon case are as follows:

•Flores was an undocumented (illegal) worker who was employed by general contractor Bredbenner from April to November of each year. Bredbenner’s business was installing gutters.
•Returning to America after his usual winter stay in Mexico, Flores sought work with Bredbenner.
•Here the story conflicts: Bredbenner testified he had no gutter work for Flores, and instead offered to hire Flores to work at his hose, doing yard cleanup for two days. Pay was $100 per day. Flores testified that he was hiredin his usual capacity as ‘laborer’ without limitation or qualification on the amount or type of work to be done.
•Flores did do yard work for Bredbenner.
•After two days of yard work, Flores accompanied Bredbenner to a gutter worksite. According to Bredbenner, the gutter installation was for a ‘friend’ and the work was unpaid (although Bredbenner was reimbursed for materials).
•According to Bredbenner, Flores offered to help at the gutter installation job, and Bredbenner accepted the offer.
•Flores fell off the roof at the job site, breaking both arms, his nose, and one leg.

Bredbenner argued that Flores was a ‘volunteer’ at the time he fell of the roof – not an employee. Bredbenner argued that Flores ‘offered’ to help and there was no promise of payment for his help. The Judge of Compensation found that Flores was an employee of Bredbenner at the time of the accident. The Appellate Panel agreed.

The legal decision was based on the following factors:
1. Credibility. Basically, the trial judge found Flores more credible than Bredbenner.
2. The statutory definition of employee. N.J.S.A. 34:15-36 defines an employee as “a servant . . . who performs a service for financial consideration.”
3.The prior employment relationship. Flores was able to show a two-year history of working for Bredbenner.
4.The circumstances of the incident. Flores was transported to the work site by Bredbenner, used materials and tools provided by Bredbenner, and worked under the ‘direction and control’ of Bredbenner.

All of the judges acknowledged that the lack of a contract and the fact that Flores was a seasonal employee who had only been back in Bredbenner’s employ for two days complicated the decision.

Case: Flores v. Paragon Construction and Restoration, App. Div. A-1035-07T3, decided September 15, 2008 by Judges Payne and Alvarez. (Note: this blog entry discusses an ‘unpublished’ decision). Also note: I can’t find a copy of this decision online, either at the Rutgers Law Library or the Appellate Division’s page. If you would like a copy of this decision, please contact me directly – my office # is 973-622-3000.

Statute discussed: N.J.S.A. 34:15-36
NEW CASE: FLORES V. PARAGON CONSTRUCTION – DEFINING “EMPLOYMENT”
9/15/08
New Case – Employment – Who Is an ‘Employee’?

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Greg Lois is the managing partner of LOIS LLC and dedicates his practice to defending employers and carriers in New York and New Jersey workers' compensation claims. Greg is the author of a popular series of "Handbooks" on workers' compensation, and is the co-author of the 2016 & 2017 Lexis-Nexis New Jersey Workers' Compensation Practice Guide. Greg can be reached at 201-880-7213 or glois@loisllc.com