Labor and Employment Law Decisions in 2013-14 from the Connecticut Supreme Court

Written by Robert G. Brody and Abby M. Warren on September 30, 2014

The Connecticut Law Tribune

September 15, 2014

This Connecticut Supreme Court term was again relatively quiet in the area of labor and employment, with only three decisions that impact employers, and the labor and employment advice attorneys give their clients.

Plumber Driving Company Car with Tools Not Entitled to Paid Travel Time

In Sarrazin v. Coastal, Inc., 311 Conn. 581 (2014), the Court held that an employee who drives a company vehicle with tools in it should not be paid travel time for the commute under federal law.  Federal law is more generous than Connecticut law and therefore controlling.

The plaintiff, a plumbing foreman, drove to various work sites in either his truck or his employer’s truck.  He claimed he was owed overtime wages for 1) his daily commute between home and work sites, 2) the half hour he cleaned the vehicle and organized the tools, and 3) the occasional trips he made to pick up tools and equipment from the defendant’s warehouse.

Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, specifically the Portal-to-Portal Act, the plaintiff’s commute would not be compensable.  It is well-settled federal law that commuting time, as well as activities that are preliminary and postliminary to an employee’s principal work activity, are not compensable.  With regard to using a company vehicle for commuting, under federal law, the travel time and activities incidental to use of the vehicle are not part of the employee’s principal activities if the use is within the normal commuting area and use is subject to an agreement between the employer and employee.  Travel time is compensable where the employee’s commuting time is integral and indispensable to the principal work activity.  To determine if something is a principal work activity, courts use a “predominant benefit analysis” to compare the employer’s benefit and the employee’s burden.  Under the above law, an employee traveling with tools in a vehicle would not be owed travel time since having tools in the back of the vehicle does not put any restrictions on the employee’s commute.

The plaintiff tried to avoid this result by creatively arguing state law was more generous than federal law in that it viewed such time as compensable, and it therefore preempted federal law.  The plaintiff pointed to the Connecticut Department of Labor’s (“CTDOL”) interpretation of the law (in A Guide to Wage and Workplace Standards Division and Its Laws), which relied on a 1995 federal Department of Labor opinion letter under which plaintiff’s travel time would have been compensable.  However, the position in the opinion letter had been rejected by Congress in 1996 when a law was passed that expressly rejected the letter’s interpretation of the law.

The Court reviewed this legislative history and held the CTDOL’s interpretation should receive no deference since it was “not time-tested, reasonable or the result of formal rule-making procedures.”  The Court accepted the trial court’s conclusions that the travel time was not compensable since the restrictions were too minimal to be compensable.  For support, the Court referenced other cases with similar outcomes including a case where police officers drove canines in their vehicles.  Even carrying canines was considered “minimal.”

Although this case does not establish new law, it does serve at least two purposes for attorneys.  First, it lays out travel time law in Connecticut and is likely to be widely-cited in the future.  Second, given how quickly the Court rejected the agency’s written interpretation, it is a cautionary tale to attorneys to be mindful of reliance on informal agency guidance.

Ambiguous Employment Letter Requires Analysis of Parties’ Intent

In Cruz v. Visual Perceptions, LLC et al., 311 Conn. 93 (2014), the Court was faced with deciding whether a document setting forth a pay raise for a 36-month period created a definite term of employment or was simply a condition of an otherwise at-will employment relationship.  Employment-at-will prevailed.

The plaintiff, hired as a laboratory manager, signed the following documents:

  • Upon hire, February 2, 2006, the plaintiff and employer signed a document with rate of compensation, commission opportunities, benefits, and work schedule.
  • April 6, 2006, the plaintiff and employer signed a document revising the terms of employment and providing for a raise.
  • February 2007, the plaintiff gave the employer a handwritten list of updated terms of employment and requested a raise.
  • March 1, 2007, the plaintiff and employer signed a document providing for a raise and stating the document would cover a 36-month period starting April 1, 2007 and ending March 31, 2010.
  • The employee was terminated on October 16, 2008 and filed a lawsuit.

The plaintiff claimed the March 1, 2007 document created an employment contract with a fixed 36-month term and the trial and appellate courts agreed, based on the language of the contract alone and no other evidence.

The Court did not agree and concluded the provision was ambiguous as to whether it created a contract for a definite term or just governed the conditions of the at-will employment.  Because of the ambiguity, the Court held the trial court should have evaluated the parties’ intent through extrinsic evidence.  The Court reversed the judgment from the appellate court and remanded the case to the trial court for further factual findings to determine the parties’ intent.

It will be interesting to see what the trial court ultimately concludes.  Regardless of the outcome, this case reminds attorneys and their clients to include employment-at-will language in all contracts, letters, understandings, policies, and other employment-related documents.  This is especially true where durational employment provisions are introduced.  For example, this employer could have potentially avoided litigation had a clause been included in the March 1, 2007 document such as:  The “36-month term” pertains only to pay rate during that time period.  It does not create any fixed term of employment.  The employee remains an employee-at-will and may be terminated at any time without cause.

$70,228 Severance Pay Does Not Waive Workers’ Compensation Claim

In Leonetti v. MacDermid, Inc., et al., 310 Conn. 195 (2014), the Court affirmed a decision of the Workers’ Compensation Review Board (“Board”) that held an employee’s waiver of all claims, as set forth in a general release, was unenforceable with regard to the employee’s workers’ compensation claim (“WCC”).

The claimant, a 28-year employee, was offered $70,228 in severance pay upon termination in exchange for signing a release waiving all claims.  The employee had a preexisting WCC for a lumbar spine injury and did not want to release this claim.  The claimant’s attorney asked that the WCC be removed from the release and respondent’s counsel refused.  The claimant’s counsel scheduled an informal hearing before a workers’ compensation commissioner which the respondent’s counsel did not attend.  Instead, the respondent sent a letter threatening to withdraw the offer if it was not accepted within ten days.  The claimant signed the release.

The issue of whether the release waived the WCC was brought before a Board commissioner who found the release did not waive claimant’s rights since it was never approved by a commissioner.  Further, the commissioner held it was not in full and final settlement of the WCC since the severance payment was not related to the WCC.  The respondent appealed to the Board and also argued the claimant perpetrated a fraud by signing the release; the Board refused to rule on the enforceability of the release stating its jurisdiction extended only to the release of the WCC.  The Board affirmed the decision of the commissioner and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court where the decision was affirmed.

The Court held the commissioner properly refused to approve the stipulation as a full and final settlement of the claimant’s WCC where the claimant received nothing for the waiver of the claim.  The Court scolded respondent for its behavior in trying to force the employee to give up his WCC.  The Court agreed with the Board’s statement that “one could almost go as far as to say [that] the events portrayed in this matter represent exactly the type of scenario [that] the provision of the [act] were intended to prevent.”  The Court detailed the actions of the respondent in refusing to negotiate, forcing the claimant to sign the agreement, and its overall “unwillingness. . . to engage in meaningful attempts to amicably resolve the claimant’s concerns. . .”

Any employer who gives employees severance in exchange for a general release should remember that various employee rights may not be waived in standard releases such as WCC’s, unemployment insurance claims, and wage and hour claims.  Attempts to include such provisions, no matter how subtle or clever, will usually fail.

Next Term – Court to Hear Whistleblower/First Amendment Case

In May, the Court agreed it would hear a much-anticipated case regarding whether Connecticut employees can be disciplined or discharged for certain speech in the workplace, in Trusz v. UBS Realty Investors (Docket number FEDNCV090000268S).  In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court held that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees’ speech is not protected.  Connecticut courts have largely held that because state law affords more protection to employees, namely C.G.S. § 31-51q, a statute protecting employees from discipline or discharge for exercising their first amendment rights under the state and federal constitutions, the 2006 case does not control.  The Court will decide whether Connecticut’s law affords broader protection to employees or if the 2006 case should be applied to limit employees’ protection.

 

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Each year brings a new focus for the Court.  As the Court begins their new term, employees, employers, and their counsel should remain aware of the Court’s latest leanings.  We look forward to next year’s update.

Robert G. Brody is the founder of Brody and Associates, LLC.  Abby M. Warren is an associate at the firm.  Brody and Associates represents management in employment and labor law matters and has offices in Westport and New York City.

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About the Authors

Robert G. Brody is the founding member of Brody and Associates, LLC. He has been quoted and published in national publications and appears as a guest T.V. commentator on contemporary Labor and Employment issues. Learn More

Abby M. Warren is an Associate with Brody and Associates, LLC. She works on both Labor and Employment Law matters. Abby worked at the New Haven Superior Court. Learn More