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Crawford v. West Virginia Department of Corrections

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 8, 2017

WILLIAM F. CRAWFORD, Claimant Below, Petitioner
v.
WEST VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS - WORK RELEASE, Respondent Below, Respondent

          Submitted: May 16, 2017

         Appeal from the Workers' Compensation Board of Review Claim No. 2014016722, Appeal No. 2050637

          John Skaggs The Calwell Practice, LC Charleston, West Virginia Attorney for the Petitioner.

          Steven K. Wellman Jenkins Fenstermaker, PLLC Huntington, West Virginia Attorney for Amicus Curiae, Defense Trial Counsel of West Virginia.

          Jonathan J. Jacks Lisa Warner Hunter Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC Charleston, West Virginia Attorneys for the Respondent.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. W.Va. Code § 23-4-1e(b) (2011) (Supp. 2016) prohibits a person confined in a state correctional facility or jail who is participating in a work-release program from receiving workers' compensation benefits for any injury sustained while engaged in such work during the person's period of confinement.

          DAVIS JUSTICE

         In this appeal from an order of the Workers' Compensation Board of Review ("the Board"), Mr. William F. Crawford ("Mr. Crawford"), petitioner herein and claimant below, challenges the Board's finding that he is not eligible to receive workers' compensation benefits for an injury he sustained while he was an inmate participating in a work-release program.[1] Having considered the briefs, [2] the record submitted on appeal, the relevant law, and the oral argument presented by the parties, we affirm.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case involves a former inmate, Mr. Crawford, who seeks workers' compensation benefits for an injury he sustained during his period of confinement at the Charleston Work Release Center.[3] In order to be placed at the Charleston Work Release Center, Mr. Crawford was required to sign a "Contract for Placement at a Work Release Center." The contract set out certain conditions for participation in a work-release program, and provided that Mr. Crawford could be returned to his parent institution at any time. After completing a thirty-day probationary period, Mr. Crawford was assigned to a road crew working for the West Virginia Division of Highways ("DOH"). Inmates at the Charleston Work Release Center, including Mr. Crawford, were able to provide work to DOH by virtue of a "Statewide Convict Workforce Agreement" made between DOH and the West Virginia Division of Corrections ("Corrections"), [4] the respondent herein and below. Under the particular agreement in effect at the time relevant to this appeal, which was dated April 26, 2012, Corrections would make available to DOH "a number of crews, which will vary both according to availability of inmates and the seasonal needs of [DOH]." In return, DOH agreed to "reimburse Corrections for inmate pay." In addition, pursuant to the express terms of the agreement,

[DOH] and Corrections agree that the inmates performing services under this agreement will not be employees of the State entitling them to any benefits such employees might have including, but not limited to, insurance, worker [sic] compensation, benefits, pensions, sick, and annual leave.

(Emphasis added). In order to be on a road crew, Mr. Crawford also was required to sign a Corrections document titled "Contract for Placement on Road Crew or Community Crew." This document established various restrictions for inmate participation on a road crew. For example, pursuant to the contract, "[DOH] staff members have no authority to excuse an inmate Road Crew member from work." Moreover, "[a]ll inmate Road Crew members must remain on their designated crew unless given written permission to leave that assigned employment placement. An inmate Road Crew member will not be permitted to leave the assigned crew until replaced by another person, except in cases of parole or discharge." Likewise, under the contract, a Corrections "Employment Officer may terminate an inmate's work assignment at any time or may reassign an inmate to a different work crew at his/her discretion."

         While working on a road crew serving DOH, Mr. Crawford's hand was severely injured on March 28, 2013, when it was caught in a wood chipper. His injuries resulted in surgery and hospitalization, with medical bills in excess of $90, 000 that were paid by Corrections. Mr. Crawford was paroled soon after his release from the hospital.

         Mr. Crawford initiated a claim for workers' compensation and, on November 15, 2013, the Claims Administrator rejected Mr. Crawford's application for benefits based upon its determination that he did not suffer an injury in the course of and resulting from his employment. The claims administrator found that Mr. Crawford was an inmate and not an employee as defined under West Virginia Code § 23-4-1(a) (2008) (Repl. Vol. 2010). The Office of Judges ("OOJ") affirmed the decision of the claims administrator. The OOJ found that Mr. Crawford was still incarcerated and an inmate while housed at the Charleston Work Release Center. Moreover, the work agreement between Corrections and DOH made clear that the workers from work release centers were considered inmates and not employees. The OOJ concluded that, pursuant to West Virginia Code § 23-4- 1e(b) (2011) (2016 Supp.), Mr. Crawford was ineligible to receive workers' compensation benefits for an injury he received while in a work-release center performing work for DOH. The Board affirmed the Order of the OOJ. This appeal followed. By order entered on February 16, 2017, this Court directed the parties to file supplemental briefs. The case subsequently was submitted on briefs and oral argument.

         II.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Because the Board decision under review affirmed prior rulings by the claims administrator and the OOJ, the standards for this Court's review of the Board's rulings are set out in W.Va. Code §§ 23-5-15(b & c) (2005) (Repl. Vol. 2010):

(b) In reviewing a decision of the board of review, the supreme court of appeals shall consider the record provided by the board and give deference to the board's findings, reasoning and conclusions, in ...

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