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West Virginia Precludes Work-Released Inmates from Worker’s Compensation Benefits

Crawford v. West Virginia Department of Corrections-Work Release, Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. View pdf

(June 28, 2017) Allyson L. Blazey, Summer Associate.

For more information, contact James S. Maloney, Esquire

On June 8, 2017, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia denied William Crawford (“Claimant”) workers’ compensation benefits under WV. Code § 23-4-1e(b) of the Workers’ Compensation Rules of the West Virginia Insurance Commissioner (“WC § 23-4-1e(b)”). Relying on WC § 23-4-1e(b) and the “Full Force and Effect” doctrine, the Court confirmed that the Claimant was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits as they ruled that work-release programs were considered “confinement” under WC § 23-4-1e(b).

William Crawford, a former inmate at Charleston Work Release Center (“CWRC”), injured his hand severely when it was caught in a wood chipper on March 28, 2013. Pursuant to a contractual agreement with CWRC, the Claimant had worked for the West Virginia Division of Highways (“DOH”) as part of the work-release program. In the program, “inmates would be placed in CWRC if he or she agreed to provide work to a particular entity, such as DOH.” In the contractual agreement, the inmate agreed that he or she would not be considered an “employee of the State and/or entitled to any of their benefits… such as workers’ compensation.”

Even though CWRC paid for all of the medical bills resulting from the accident, Crawford filed a claim with the Claims’ Administrator to obtain workers’ compensation. On November 15, 2013, the Administrator held that the claim was non-compensable as the inmate “had not suffered an injury in the course of or resulting from employment as he was not an employee.” Aggrieved by the denial of benefits, he appealed his claim to the Office of Judges to determine “whether or not a work-release inmate was subject to WC § 23-4-1e(b).” As a result, the Office of Judges affirmed the Claims Administers’ ruling based on the finding that “Crawford was still incarcerated while housed at CWRC” and that “the work agreement classified Crawford as “an inmate and not an employee.” On appeal, the West Virginia Workers’ Compensation Board of Review (“Board”) upheld the Office of Judge’s decision.

At the Supreme Court of Appeals, the Court followed suit and affirmed the Board of Review’s ruling. Even though the Court addressed the issue of “equal protection,” Justice Davis spent the majority of the opinion discussing “whether or not an inmate participating in a work-release program who was assigned to work for a state agency was prohibited from receiving workers’ compensation benefits.” In the end, the Supreme Court of Appeals agreed with both of the lower court’s rulings and held that the Claimant was not entitled to workers’ compensation.

At the outset of the opinion, the Court discussed the parties’ differing interpretations of WC § 23-4-1e(b). While both parties agreed that the statute was “ambiguous,” their opinions varied on the issue of whether or not the employment was “voluntary.” The Claimant argued that the statute “did not exclude workers’ compensation coverage for work-release employment because the employment was voluntary as opposed to being imposed by the administration of the state correctional facility or the jail.” The Claimant cited to State v. Kendrick to support his position as the Court had previously ruled that “court-granted work-release programs were in fact a “privilege.” The West Virginia Department of Corrections, on the other hand, had a differing opinion. They contended that while inmates may “voluntarily request to participate in the work-release program, the requirement of work is imposed as a condition of their continued participation in the program.” They reasoned that if an inmate failed or refused to work, he or she would be “returned to the correctional facility to resume serving his or her term of incarceration.”

While both parties were able to support their positions, the Court ruled in favor of West Virginia Department of Corrections’ statutory interpretation. Justice Davis began by stating that “the primary objective when construing a statute’s meaning is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature.” He relied on the ruling in State v. Epperly which held that “the Court must give a statute “Full Force and Effect” and not interpret its meaning when “a statutory provision is clear, unambiguous and plainly expresses the legislative intent.” The Court reasoned that if “the plain meaning of the text answered the interpretive question, the language must prevail and be applied as written.”

When turning to WC § 23-4-1e(b), the Supreme Court of Appeals articulated that the “plain language of the statute identified two possible types of work.” Under the first, a claimant would not be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if the work was “performed during a period of confinement.” The court reasoned that benefits “would not be provided to a person that was “confined in a state correctional facility or jail as imposed by the administration.” When looking to the second, the Court ruled that an employee who was “confined in a state correction facility but was injured during their usual employment with usual employer, would be eligible for workers’ compensation.” Based on the plain meaning of the statute, the Court held that WC § 23-4-1e(b) prohibited Crawford from obtaining benefits as he was “injured during his confinement at CWRC, which was in fact a state correctional facility.”

Relying on WC § 23-4-1e(b) and the “Full Force and Effect” doctrine, the Court concluded that the Claimant was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. The Court reasoned that an inmate is still “confined” while working in a work-release program at a state correctional facility based on the statute’s “plain meaning.” As a result, the Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed the Board’s decision.

Description: Former inmate workers’ compensation benefits denied based on the “Full Force and Effect” doctrine and the status of work-release inmates.

Summary: Relying on WV. Code § 23-4-1e(b) and the “Full Force and Effect” doctrine, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia denied a former inmate workers’ compensation benefits as the claimant was “confined” in a state correctional facility and not “entitled to benefits offered to state employees.”