Joyce v. Pecos Benedictine Monastery

Decision Date25 April 1995
Docket NumberNo. 15793,15793
Citation895 P.2d 286,1995 NMCA 54,119 N.M. 764
PartiesSharon T. JOYCE, Worker-Appellant, v. PECOS BENEDICTINE MONASTERY and Mountain States Mutual Casualty Company, Employer/Insurer-Appellees.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico
OPINION

PICKARD, Judge.

Claimant appeals from the workers' compensation judge's order dismissing her claim. The sole issue presented on appeal is whether Claimant was a "worker" at the time of her injury for purposes of the New Mexico Workers' Compensation Act, NMSA 1978, Sections 52-1-1 to 52-1-70 (Repl.Pamp.1991 & Cum.Supp.1994). We find no error in the judge's order dismissing with prejudice Claimant's complaint for benefits.

Renouncing her former civil service to the Air Force as an armaments engineer, Claimant joined the Pecos Benedictine Monastery in the summer of 1991 in order to devote her life to the service of God. On January 22, 1993, Claimant sustained an injury to her back when she slipped on a floor being washed by an employee of the monastery. The monastery is a religious institution dedicated to following the Rule of Saint Benedict, and its primary purpose is the spiritual development of its members. The monastery takes in money by offering retreats and religious publications in exchange for donations.

Prior to admittance as a temporary member of the monastery, Claimant completed an application for admission. In the application, Claimant described her motivations for joining the monastery as: "I am attracted to community life in service of man and God. I feel a need to answer God's call and want [to] explore monastic life as an answer to His call." What attracted her to the Pecos Monastery in particular was "[t]he Abbey's obedience and adherence to our Pope." Upon receipt and review of Claimant's application to the monastery, the monastery invited Claimant to become a member of the monastery, an invitation that the Abbot of the monastery did not consider an offer of employment.

At the time of her injury, Claimant enjoyed the status of a novice in the monastery, which meant that she was considered a temporary member, working her way through a progression of classifications called a "formation process," at the completion of which she would be invited to apply for permanent status with the monastery. The process of becoming a permanent member requires approximately five years. As a novice, Claimant was assigned work in the reservations and business office of the monastery. Claimant's work in the reservations and business office was accomplished in regular working hours and was supervised. The work assigned novices in the monastery is considered by the Abbot of the monastery to be "a spiritual discipline that also has its practical side." No distinctions are drawn between spiritual duties and menial work assigned to members of the monastery. Work assignments are made on the basis of the needs of the monastery and the abilities of the members. Members are not allowed to refuse their work assignments because the Rule of Saint Benedict requires them to work. Claimant testified that an instrumental part of her answering God's call was to perform service for the monastery and that, for her, part of that service was duty in the reservations and business office. Claimant testified that she did not expect to receive monetary remuneration for her services when she came to the monastery, and that her motivations to complete services while at the monastery were her love for God, her desire to advance her relationship with God, and her desire to advance in the community formation process. Claimant testified that she did not expect monetary reward "in the form of a paycheck" in exchange for her services, but she did expect to receive housing, food, and spiritual benefits. Upon acceptance as a member of the monastery, Claimant signed a "waiver of remuneration," whereby she waived "all claim and rights to any salary or reimbursement whatever for services rendered by me during my association with the PECOS BENEDICTINE MONASTERY, Incorporated, Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, Pecos, New Mexico."

Members of the monastery are provided a room and three meals a day. In addition, novices such as Claimant are provided a "vestry" of twenty-five dollars a month. Room, board, and vestry were available to Claimant during two periods of time during which she was not physically able to perform the manual labor that was assigned to her. Claimant testified that the purpose of the vestry was to buy necessary personal items and to cover living expenses over and above the room and board that was provided by the monastery. Claimant testified that she never received tax forms from the monastery and that she never reported her vestry as income to either the federal or state governments because she was told that it was not part of her income. No taxes are withheld from the vestry.

In addition to members, there are people who work at the monastery who are volunteers and what the monastery considers "employees." Volunteers do not receive a vestry. Employees receive a salary, are not considered members, are covered by workers' compensation insurance, and complete an application prior to employment that is different from that completed by members.

Section 52-1-2 provides that "every charitable organization employing workers ... 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 in the manner and amount at times herein required." The Act defines "worker" 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." Section 52-1-16(A). The monastery and its workers' compensation carrier contend that the monastery is not obligated to pay compensation to Claimant because she was not a worker for purposes of the Act. We agree.

Where the facts are undisputed as they are here, the question of whether Claimant was a worker at the time of her 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). Claimant argues that she was under a contract of service or apprenticeship. Claimant correctly observes that:

to establish the relationship of employer-employee in the workmen's compensation context, there must exist a mutuality of obligations and agreement; there must be present both a duty of employee to perform services subject to an employer's right to control the details of performance, and the worker's right to receive compensation.

Id. at 168, 637 P.2d at 850.

No New Mexico case has previously considered the issue of whether a member of a religious order is a worker for purposes of the Act. Some other states have, however, and we turn to them for guidance.

In Sister Odelia v. Church of St. Andrew, 195 Minn. 357, 263 N.W. 111 (1935), the claimant, Sister Odelia, was a Benedictine nun who worked in a parochial school operated by the Church of Saint Andrew. Id. 263 N.W. at 111. Pursuant to a contract, the church paid $350 annually and provided her with room and board. Id. Sister Odelia had an agreement with her order whereby she turned over all money earned by her to the order. Id. The court held that, regardless of who ended up with her paycheck, wages were being paid for Sister Odelia's services. Id. at 112. Therefore, the court ruled, Sister Odelia was an employee of the church.

Similarly, in Sister Mary Benedict v. St. Mary's Corp., 255 Iowa 847, 124 N.W.2d 548 (1963), Sister Mary Benedict was a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Humility of Mary order. Id. 124 N.W.2d at 550. Sister Mary Benedict taught at a parochial school operated by the order and was paid $750 a year and furnished with room and board pursuant to a contract with the school. Id. Sister Mary Benedict assigned every paycheck from the school to the order. Id. The definition of an employee, for purposes of the Iowa workers' compensation scheme at the time, was substantively identical to the definition of a worker in New Mexico. Id. The court cited with authority the reasoning in Sister Odelia which observed that, regardless of whether the money paid to claimant was assigned to the order to which the claimant belonged, the claimant was being paid for her work. Sister Mary Benedict, 124 N.W.2d at 551. Therefore, the court held, Sister Mary Benedict was an employee for...

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