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Fallout for Injuries Sustained by Contractor’s Employee

When construction is taking place on a piece of real estate, and an employee of the contractor doing the work is injured there, who bears the potential tort liability for the injury, the property owner, the general contractor, or both?  Luckily Pennsylvania law provides a way to discern how liability should be distributed if there is no existing contract between the contractor and property owner which addresses the liability question.

The basic legal principle is foundational, well established, and has manifold case support in Pennsylvania.  The standard of care present in such a case mirrors the standard of care a property owner has to an individual on the property owner’s land.  The standard of care a property owner has depends upon whether the individual on the property owner’s land is a trespasser, licensee, or invitee.  Under Pennsylvania law, the employee of a general contractor who is authorized to be on the property falls within the classification of business invitee, and therefore, the duty of care owed to a business invitee is the highest duty owed to any entrant upon the property.

Pennsylvania “case law sets forth the duty that a possessor of law owes to business invitees as follows:  A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land if, and only if, he (a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, and (b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.”  Chenot v. A.P. Green Services, Inc., et al., 2006 Pa.Super. 52, 63 (2006)  Therefore, a property owner is potentially liable for the injuries sustained by a contractor’s employee while on the property.

In addition, there is no doubt that a duty of care attaches to a contractor for the injuries sustained by its employees.  Suffice it to say, a contractor has a duty, for which it can be held liable if breached, for injuries sustained by its employees while they are engaged in working for the contractor at the property.  However, the duty of care applied to a contractor does not lessen or relieve the property owner of his/her/its duty of care over business invitees/visitors.  Despite a contractor’s duty of care, a property owner “must [still] protect an invitee not only against known dangers, but also against those which might be discovered with reasonable care.” The court in  Gutteridge v. A.P. Green Services Inc., A.W. et al., 804 A.2d 643, 657 (Pa. Super. 2002) stated that a property owner ‘“owes a duty to warn an unknowing contractor of existing dangerous conditions on the landowner’s premises where such conditions are known or discoverable to the owner.”’  Finally, it should also be noted that the property owner’s duty to warn remains regardless of whether a contractor ‘“exercises full control over the work and premises entrusted to him.’”  (See Gutteridge).

Based upon the above, it is abundantly clear that a property owner can be held liable for the injuries sustained by a contractor’s employee working at his property if he breaches the duty of care described above and does not fulfill his duty to warn.  Consequently, the highest standard of care that a property owner ought to maintain applies to an employee of a contractor at the property who is authorized to be working there.  Such an employee is a business invitee of the property owner.  Therefore, to that end, a property owner has a duty to protect such an employee from known dangers at the property and those which could be discovered with reasonable care.  The liability of the property owner is supplemental to, and/or in addition to, any liability the contractor may also have for his employee’s injuries.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on January 28, 2016 and can be found here.

The Hidden Inequity in Unemployment Compensation Law

As everyone knows, the current financial climate is precarious at best, which makes knowing one’s rights under Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law vital to one’s financial future. Conventional wisdom, which is largely correct, is the following: an employer must pay unemployment compensation taxes for employees and those employees can collect unemployment compensation benefits if separated from employment (presuming, of course, they meet the statutory eligibility requirements). For unemployment compensation purposes, an employee is basically defined as someone who is dependant upon the business for which he works for income, works for a fixed rate of remuneration from the business for which he works, and whose work is completely controlled by that same business.

Perhaps an employee is best described by what it is not. In contrast to an employee is an independent contractor. Independent contractors, by statutory definition, are ineligible for benefits. An independent contractor is defined by 43 P.S. § 753(l)(2)(B), and the cases decided thereunder, as the following: (1) being free from the direction and control of a purported employer and (2) having an independent business that is not reliant upon a single source for his business. While the above language means is often determined on a case by case basis, general guidelines have been provided in well established Pennsylvania case law. Characteristics of someone who is free from direction and control include, but are not limited to, the following: the individual (1) does not have his taxes withheld by an alleged employer; (2) can accept or reject work at his own discretion; (3) can work for competing entities without fear of reprisal; (4) can control how a job is performed; (5) works without a fixed rate for remuneration; (6) supplies his own tools and/or supplies to accomplish his work; (7) does not receive “on the job training” from the alleged employer; (8) sets his own hours of work; (9) sets his own parameters for his work; and (10) is not dependant upon a single source for his business. As an independent contractor is not an employee, and therefore not eligible for benefits, if one contracts with an independent contractor no unemployment taxes need be paid for that person.

The general rule is if unemployment compensation taxes are paid for an individual, then that person can collect benefits; in the alternative if someone cannot collect benefits, then the unemployment compensation taxes do not have to be paid for that person. However, is there a situation where the tax must be paid for someone but that individual cannot collect? In the context of Unemployment Compensation, the analysis of what makes an employee, as contrasted from an independent contractor, converges onto an owner of a business in a way that is inequitable. The inequity appears to be derived from exploiting both sides of businesses as legal entities independent from both its owners and employees.

An owner of a business, who works and earns income for the business he owns, is considered to be an “employee” for whom unemployment compensation taxes must be paid because the owner depends upon the business for his income and the business completely controls the owner’s work. However, in reality, as the owner of the business, he controls what work the business does and how it is performed. Therefore, the business owner simultaneously controls and directs the business (fitting the criteria for an independent contractor) on the one hand, while being dependant upon and controlled by the business for both work and income (fitting the criteria for an employee) on the other hand. Taking full advantage of a business owner’s dual role as independent contractor and employee, Pennsylvania Unemployment Law as presently written and interpreted, treats a business owner as either an employee or independent contractor when it most benefits the government as opposed to the owner. Therefore, although a business owner pays unemployment compensation taxes on his own income from his business because he fits the criteria of an employee, if that same business owner becomes separated from the business for any reason (except for the exception detailed below) then that business owner is ineligible to collect unemployment benefits because he also meets all of the criteria for an independent contractor listed above. Therein lays the hidden inequity: a business owner must essentially pay a tax for which he cannot receive the benefit.

The only exception that would allow a typical business owner to collect unemployment benefits is if he is forced to terminate his relationship with the business through an involuntary bankruptcy. An involuntary bankruptcy is considered to be analogous to the involuntary termination of one’s employment from an employer. Perhaps this is a clue as to the rationale behind the general rule that business owners must pay for but cannot collect unemployment benefits for themselves. A business owner is essentially his own employer and could hire himself and lay himself off repeatedly at will, theoretically making himself eligible for unemployment benefits over and over again. Perhaps lawmakers believed a business owner holds too much control over the employment relationship with the business itself to allow him to collect benefits.

It is interesting to note that, aside from the above exception, a Pennsylvania statute specifically carves out an exception for real estate and insurance agents in 43 P.S. § 753(l)(4)(17). The statute specifically indicates that although real estate and insurance agents may own, at least in part, the businesses for which they work, unemployment compensation law will specifically deem them to be exclusively independent contractors as opposed to simultaneously employees. Therefore, there is no requirement under Pennsylvania statute for real estate and insurance agents to pay unemployment compensation taxes. Thus far, the cases decided under 43 P.S. § 753(l)(4)(17) have not expanded its application beyond the specific exceptions for real estate and insurance agents to include individuals in other professions but with the same sort of owner/employee arrangement relationship.

Most people expect to have the safety net of unemployment compensation benefits if they unfortunately lose their job. However, if one owns a business and pays unemployment compensation taxes for oneself, he should be aware that the payment of the tax does not entitle him to collect the benefit. This may be clearly inequitable on its face, but until it is changed it is imperative that business owners be aware that the safety net they may be hoping for will not catch them if they can no longer work for their business.

Originally published in “Upon Further Review” on October 8, 2009 and can be found here and on my website here.

Employed or Not Employed? That Is the Question

It might seem obvious that one of the primary criteria used to determine whether an individual is eligible for Unemployment Compensation is for that individual to have been actually employed by the perceived “employer” he was “working for” before his/her separation from said perceived employer. Although colloquial parlance equates “working for” someone/something with employment, Unemployment Compensation Law makes a distinction between those who “work for” someone/something under an employment relationship and those who have an independent contracting relationship. Consequently, when an individual applies for and is denied Unemployment Compensation, he may be shocked to learn that his denial is due to the fact that the person/entity he had been “working for,” for however long or short period of time, was never actually his “employer”. While some may say that this distinction appears to be mere hair splitting, its impact on whether an Unemployment Compensation claimant is granted or denied benefits is ultimately dispositive. That is, an individual who has an independent contractor relationship with an individual/entity is not eligible for Unemployment Compensation benefits if that relationship is terminated. It matters not whether the contracting relationship was terminated for “cause” or was “voluntary” – the mere existence of an independent contractor relationship renders the potential claimant ineligible for benefits. Therefore, it is crucial to know and understand the distinction between employment and independent contracting in the context of Unemployment Compensation and this article will lay out the criteria for the definition of independent contracting as it applies to the collection of Unemployment Compensation benefits.

Under Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law, if one is an independent contractor, then one is considered to be self-employed. Although the statute defines neither independent contractor nor self-employment, the statute does define “employment” essentially as follows: ” [s]ervices performed by an individual for wages shall be deemed to be employment subject to this act”. 43 P.S. § 753 (l)(2)(B). The statute continues, establishing basic guidelines as to what employment is not: “[one is deemed employed] unless and until it is shown to the satisfaction of the department that–(a) such individual has been and will continue to be free from control or direction over the performance of such services both under the contract for service and in fact; and (b) as to such services such individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business. 43 P.S. § 753 (l)(2)(B).

While describing what employment is not, the above quoted basic guidelines, conversely, establish the essential criteria for self-employment (i.e. independent contracting). Consequently, the Pennsylvania Courts use the following two-part test to determine whether an individual is self-employed (i.e.: independently contracting): (1) whether the claimant was free from control and direction in the performance of the work; and (2) the business is one that is customarily engaged in as an independent trade or business. (Venango Newspapers v. Com., Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 158 Pa. Cmwlth. 379, 631 A.2d 1384 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1993), holding that where claimant did not receive on-the-job training, supplied his own tools and had no taxes deducted from the sums received, claimant was not an employee.) As the claim that an individual is not an employee but rather an independent contractor is essentially an affirmative defense made by the alleged employer against the claim for benefits, the alleged employer generally has the burden to prove that the claimant is not an employee.

To determine whether an individual is free from the control and direction of an employer in the performance of work, the Pennsylvania Courts frequently look to eight factors. No one factor is determinative as to whether an individual is an employee or independent contractor, and the Court generally considers and weighs all eight factors in the employment relationship.

The eight factors considered by the Court are as follows: first, the Court examines how the job was performed. Specifically, the Court is more likely to decide that an individual is an independent contractor if he sets his own hours, creates his own work/task agenda, and/or decides how many other workers are needed for a particular task. Second, the Court looks at whether there was a fixed rate of remuneration. Who decides the cost of the services being provided? Who decides when/if raises are granted? A worker who establishes his own pay rate and decides when his own pay rate increases or decreases is functioning more like an independent contractor than employee. Third, the Court notes whether taxes are deducted from the claimant’s remuneration. The Court is more likely to rule that a worker is an independent contractor if the worker receives a 1099 form and is able to deduct expenses and be responsible for paying his own taxes. Fourth, the Court also notes whether the alleged employer supplies the tools necessary to carry out the services being provided. If the worker must provide and use his own tools to carry out his tasks, the Court is more likely to rule that the worker is an independent contractor. Fifth, the Court ascertains whether the alleged employer offers on-the-job training. If an alleged employer provides on-the-job training, the Court is more likely to rule that there is an employment relationship. Sixth, the Court discerns whether there were regular meetings with the alleged employer. Regular meetings generally will signify an employment relationship. Seventh, the Court inquires into whether the claimant suffers risk of loss when claimant’s expenses exceed income. In other words, if the business fails, will the alleged employee merely lose his job, or will the alleged employee have the responsibility to satisfy the business “potential creditors If the alleged employee merely loses his job, and has no responsibility to address the business’ creditors, then the Court is likely to rule that he is an employee rather than an independent contractor. Eighth, the Court investigates into whether the claimant was compelled to look only to the employer for further employment. If a worker regularly sought and/or acquired the same or similar work from other sources, while already engaged with an alleged employer, then the Court is likely to rule that the worker had independent contracting relationships with his “employers. See, e.g., Venango, 157 Pa. Cmlwth. 379, 631 A.2d 1384 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1993); Kelly v. Comm., Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 107 Pa. Cmwlth. 261, 528 A.2d 294 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1987) (holding that claimant was self-employed where claimant was paid a lump sum for his performance, and he was not compelled to look only to general contractor for further employment); Pavalonis v. Comm., Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 57 Pa. Cmwlth. 289, 426 A.2d 215 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1981) (holding that claimant was self-employed when claimant supplied all of his tools and materials, did not receive any on-the job training, did not receive a fixed hourly wage and had no taxes deducted from the sums received from employers).

To determine whether a business is one which is customarily engaged in as an independent trade or business, the Pennsylvania Courts consider two factors: (1) whether the claimant is capable of performing the activities in question for anyone who wish to avail themselves of the services; and (2) whether the nature of the business compel the individual to look only to a single employer for the continuation of such services. See, e.g., Venango Newspapers, 631 A.2d 1384 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1993); Kelly, 528 A.2d 294 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1987); Pavalonis, 57 Pa. Cmwlth. 289, 426 A.2d 215 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1981).

The two above-mentioned factors essentially revolve around a worker’s loyalty to the individual/entity providing him with the work. Is the worker permitted to do the same work for two different (even competing) individuals/entities simultaneously? Does the worker recieve all of his work from a single individual/entity? May/must the worker seek work from more than one source? Perhaps most importantly, who decides where the worker can perform his services? If a worker is constrained to work for a single individual/entity and/or cannot select himself where he will perform his services, then the Court will weigh these factors in favor of the worker being in an employment relationship rather than an independent contracting relationship.

Significantly, the amount of money a worker receives is not a determinative factor in these analyses, as even a small sum earned does not automatically remove the designation of “independent contractor”.

Ultimately, all of the above factors can essentially be reduced to a single word: freedom. Does the worker have the freedom to set his own schedule? The freedom to establish his own pay rate? The freedom to work for competing businesses simultaneously? As a corollary, does the worker have to bear the responsibilities associated with this freedom, such as deducting his own taxes, using his own tools, and bearing the risk and burden of financial loss in the business? In the end, the more freedom a worker has the more likely the Court will find that he is an independent contractor (self-employed); the less freedom a worker has the more likely the Court will rule that the worker is an employee.

This article appeared in The Legal Intelligencer on March 30, 2006 and can be found here.

It can also be found here on my firm’s website.

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