Benavidez v. Sierra Blanca Motors, 16022

Citation907 P.2d 1018,120 N.M. 837,1995 NMCA 140
Decision Date08 November 1995
Docket NumberNo. 16022,16022
PartiesJose Ventura BENAVIDEZ, Claimant-Appellant, v. SIERRA BLANCA MOTORS and Department of Corrections, State of New Mexico, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico

APODACA, Chief Judge.

1. Jose Ventura Benavidez (Claimant) appeals an order of the workers' compensation judge (the judge) granting summary judgment to Sierra Blanca Motors (Sierra Blanca) and the Department of Corrections (the Department) and denying his cross-motion for summary judgment against Sierra Blanca. Claimant, who was a prisoner at the time of his injury, raises one issue on appeal: whether a prisoner who voluntarily participates in a work-release program and is injured while under the direction of a private business is an employee of such business and thus entitled to workers' compensation benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act, NMSA1978, §§ 52-1-1 to 52-1-70 (Repl.Pamp.1991 & Cum.Supp.1995) (the Act). We hold that, as a matter of law, under the facts of this appeal, Claimant was an employee of Sierra Blanca under the Act and therefore entitled to workers' compensation benefits. We thus reverse the order granting summary judgment to Sierra Blanca and denying Claimant's cross-motion for summary judgment. Because Claimant has conceded on appeal that he is not an employee of the Department, the order granting summary judgment to the Department is affirmed.


2. Sierra Blanca is a company that sells and services automobiles. Sometime before the injury to Claimant, Sierra Blanca contacted the Roswell Correctional Center (the RCC), a component of the New Mexico Penitentiary system operated by the Department, to request the services of several inmates. Sierra Blanca intended to use the prisoners to help demolish one of its buildings and prepare it for remodeling. Sierra Blanca had performed reconstruction on its premises in the past. Claimant, an inmate at the RCC, voluntarily participated in the work for Sierra Blanca through the Department's work-release program.

3. At the job site, Sierra Blanca told the prisoners what needed to be done, answered questions, and checked up on their work. Sierra Blanca provided equipment to the prisoners. It also kept daily payroll records for each prisoner and paid wages at the rate of $4.35 per hour. Sierra Blanca did not deduct any payroll taxes or take any other deductions from those earnings. These wages were then mailed to the RCC, which deposited the checks into each inmate's account, after deducting certain expenses not relevant here.

4. After Claimant had worked at the job site for over a month, Sierra Blanca, through a supervisor, directed Claimant to dismantle an overhead door. While working on the door, Claimant fell from a ladder and was injured. In his original claim for workers' compensation benefits, Claimant alleged that both Sierra Blanca and the Department were his employers under the Act. However, Claimant filed his cross-motion for summary judgment solely against Sierra Blanca.

5. The judge determined the following facts as undisputed: (1) Claimant was injured when he fell from a ladder while working on a remodeling project; (2) Sierra Blanca directed the work being performed by Claimant; (3) Claimant was a prisoner at the RCC on the date of the accident; (4) Claimant was participating in a work-release program administered by the RCC on the date of the accident; (5) Claimant's status on the date of the accident, while engaged in the RCC work-release program, was that of a volunteer.

6. Based on these undisputed facts, the judge concluded that Claimant did not qualify as a "worker" under the Act and thus granted summary judgment to Sierra Blanca and the Department.

A. Summary Judgment As To The Department

7. Although Claimant appealed from the order granting summary judgment to the Department, he has not provided any argument or legal authorities in opposition to the judgment in favor of the Department in any pleading filed with this Court. We therefore affirm the order granting summary judgment to the Department. See Doe v. City of Albuquerque, 96 N.M. 433, 436, 631 P.2d 728, 731 (Ct.App.1981) ("Points of error not properly briefed or argued will not be considered.").

B. Summary Judgment As To Sierra Blanca

8. Three sections of the Act are particularly relevant to our disposition. We quote from two of them here and discuss the third later in the opinion. Section 52-1-2 of the Act, entitled "Employers who come within act," states that "every private person, firm or corporation engaged in carrying on for the purpose of business or trade within this state ... shall become liable to and shall pay to any such worker injured by accident arising out of and in the course of his employment ... compensation...." (Emphasis added); see also § 52-1-15 ("employer" defined).

9. In Section 52-1-16(A), "worker" is defined as "any person who has entered into the employment of or works under contract of service or apprenticeship with an employer, except a person whose employment is purely casual and not for the purpose of the employer's trade or business." Where the facts are undisputed, as they are here, the question of whether Claimant was a "worker" (as defined in the Act) at the time of his injury is a question of law. See Jelso v. World Balloon Corp., 97 N.M. 164, 167, 637 P.2d 846, 849 (Ct.App.1981). Our first step then, in addressing the issue raised in this appeal, is to determine whether Claimant "entered into the employment of or works under contract of service or apprenticeship" with Sierra Blanca, pursuant to Section 52-1-16.

1. Implied Contract Of Service

10. An employment contract requires an agreement under which the worker receives payment in wages or something of value in exchange for his labor. Jelso, 97 N.M. at 171, 637 P.2d at 853. This contract of service exists only if the agreement stems from mutual assent, express or implied. Id. Other jurisdictions that have analyzed agreements between inmates working outside the prison and employers suggest that one crucial aspect of the contract is the extent to which the agreement is voluntary. See, e.g., Downey v. Bituminous Casualty Corp., 349 So.2d 1153, 1154 (Ala.1977); Johnson v. Industrial Comm'n, 88 Ariz. 354, 356 P.2d 1021, 1023 (1960); Barnard v. State, 642 A.2d 808, 816 (Del.Super.Ct.1992), aff'd, 637 A.2d 829 (Del.1994).

11. Sierra Blanca first argues that NMSA1978, Section 33-8-4 (Repl.Pamp.1990) precludes any prisoner from performing voluntary labor. The section states: "All persons convicted of [a] crime and confined in a facility under the laws of the state ... shall perform labor under such rules and regulations as have been or may ... be prescribed by the department." Id. (emphasis added). Any work that a prisoner performs, Sierra Blanca argues, is compelled by the statute.

12. We disagree for two reasons. First, another statute, NMSA1978, Section 33-2-43 (Repl.Pamp.1990) allows the warden to institute a work-release program only if the participating prisoners are volunteers. Although Claimant may have been compelled generally to labor under Section 33-8-4, he was not compelled specifically to perform labor in the work-release program for Sierra Blanca. He chose to do so. Second, the judge listed as an undisputed fact that Claimant's status at the time of the accident "was that of a volunteer." Because Sierra Blanca time sheets indicate it paid each prisoner an hourly wage, we do not interpret the undisputed fact to mean that Claimant gave his services voluntarily, without any expectation of reimbursement. Cf. Jelso, 97 N.M. at 169, 637 P.2d at 851 (injured claimant occupied status of volunteer because she had no legitimate expectation of payment for services). We instead interpret "volunteer," as used by the judge, to mean that Claimant had a choice to participate. We thus determine that Claimant had the capacity to make a voluntary agreement.

13. Sierra Blanca also argues that prior New Mexico case law teaches that, if a person's status is that of a prisoner, an employer-employee relationship resulting from a contract of hire can never be created. Scott v. City of Hobbs, 69 N.M. 330, 331, 366 P.2d 854, 855 (1961). We again disagree.

14. In Scott, the prisoner elected to work for the city pursuant to a city ordinance and an order from a municipal judge. Id. at 330, 366 P.2d at 855. The prisoner received credit for each day worked, which served to lessen the duration of his imprisonment. Id. Here, Claimant worked under a voluntary work-release program and his wages were credited to his account. In Scott, the prisoner entered into an agreement with the court. Here, Claimant entered into a contract with Sierra Blanca, a private company. See Republic-Franklin Ins. Co. v. City of Amherst, 50 Ohio St.3d 212, 553 N.E.2d 614, 618 (1990) ("A person who consents to perform community service in lieu of sentence enters into an agreement with the court, not the agency where the work is performed."). The facts in Scott are thus distinguishable from the facts in this appeal.

15. Claimant was not compelled to work at Sierra Blanca, but neither was he precluded from entering into a valid agreement because of his status as a prisoner. He voluntarily agreed to perform specific tasks at the job site in exchange for payment of $4.35 per hour. We thus conclude that an implied employment contract existed between Claimant and Sierra Blanca.

2. Casual Employment And Purpose

16. The second, more involved analysis under Section 52-1-16...

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