Bentley v. Piner Construction – New Hearing Granted on Employee Status in WC Case

Missclassification of workers as independent contractors rather than employees is a major problem in North Carolina. State officials have been heavily focused on it in recent years, with the governor issuing Executive Order No. 83 in December 2015, which created the Employee Classification Section of the North Carolina Industrial Commission. hammer

Although the government and the courts are certainly more aware of the problem, it continues to occur. That’s why even a worker who is denied workers’ compensation benefits on the grounds they are an independent contractor – as opposed to an employee – should consider first talking to a lawyer before giving up. Injured workers may actually be employees, no matter how the company officially classified their status. A determination of whether a worker was an employee or an independent contractor may be based on numerous factors subject to interpretation.

The recent North Carolina Court of Appeals case of Bentley v. Piner Construction was an appeal from a worker arguing the Industrial Commission made a mistake when it ruled he was an independent contractor rather than an employee for purposes of workers’ compensation. Worker argued the mistake was in basing an opinion and award on a previous opinion and order issued by a deputy commissioner who wasn’t at the hearing and never heard the evidence. The appellate court agreed and ordered a new hearing. 

According to court records, plaintiff was hired as a framer at a construction site for a residential and commercial contractor. While working at the construction site in March 2014, plaintiff was hurt when a nail he was prying out of a wooden board flew out of place and hit him in the eye.

Plaintiff filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits form the contractor. The claim was denied by the construction company and its insurer, which argued the injury wasn’t compensable because plaintiff was not an employee.

The claim was assigned to be heard by a single deputy commissioner. Toward the end of the hearing in 2014, she suggested the jurisdictional question of whether plaintiff was an employee or not could be bifurcated from the merits of the claim. She also indicated that she would be leaving the commission within two months and she would “try” to get to the jurisdictional issue before she left. She filed an order January 12, 2015 saying the jurisdictional issue was ready for a decision. A month later – after the deputy commissioner had left – another deputy commissioner issued a ruling concluding the commission lacked jurisdiction as a matter of law because plaintiff wasn’t an employee.

Plaintiff appealed to the full commission and the order was affirmed.

Plaintiff appealed that finding on the grounds the full commission based its decision on the findings of a deputy commissioner who never even personally heard the evidence in the case. So the question was whether one deputy commissioner could hear the evidence and have another make a decision on it. The appellate court’s answer: No.

The court ruled that if a dispute before the industrial commission is heard by a deputy, it is that deputy who has to arrive at a complete determination of the matters in dispute and file a a written opinion.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Bentley v. Piner Construction , Sept. 20, 2016, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:

South Carolina Construction Boom Leads to Worker Shortage, Possible Work Safety Risks, Sept. 21, 2016, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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