June 25, 2013
by Deborah Sather

Case Summary: Mendoza v. Liberty, Decided by the Court of Appeals June 12, 2013

deborah satherClaimant was the team leader of a small crew working for a property management company in its Portland location.  Her responsibilities included distributing paychecks issued from the employer’s Tacoma, Washington office.  The Employer allowed team leaders to travel to the Tacoma office to pick up paychecks, but did not pay team leaders for this travel time.  If the team leader did not travel to the Tacoma office, the checks were mailed to the Portland office or delivered by the district manager.  

In December 2008, claimant was asked by another team leader to substitute and travel to the Tacoma office and pick up the paychecks.  While in route, claimant was injured in a motor vehicle accident.  Her claim was denied as not occurring in the course of her employment.  

Both the ALJ and Workers’ Compensation Board approved the denial, finding the injury did not occur in the course of employment. Claimant was off-work, not being paid, and free to do as she wished.  The Board explained picking up the paychecks was not required nor expected and, therefore, did not benefit the Employer.  

The Court of Appeals reversed. It clarified that “course of employment” is based on the time, place, and circumstances of the injury.  A worker may be in the course of employment even if doing something incidental to regular employment duties.  Prior Court decisions have found a worker to be in the course of employment even if 1) The activity is not directed by the employer; 2) The worker is not compensated for the particular activity; 3) The worker is not at the employment premises; or 4) The worker is not performing duties directly related to profit making or her typical job duties.  

The Court recognized that claimant’s job duties required her to distribute the paychecks and that she had two options for doing so.  She could travel to Tacoma and personally pick up the paychecks or she could receive the checks in the mail.  As the Employer provided her with the option to travel to Tacoma, her injury during that travel was an off-premises work activity that was contemplated and coordinated by the employer. 

The employer argued that it received no benefit from her activity.  The Court observed that “benefit to the employer” is a legal conclusion based on the findings of fact.  Here, the record demonstrated that employees were happier to get their paychecks sooner and the employer saved postage expenses.  The Court concluded that claimant was performing an activity of her employment for her employer’s benefit thus satisfying the “course of employment” requirement.

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