Valcourt-Williams – a brief overview
Almost exactly a year preceding COVID-19 changes in workplace locations for millions of people, as if by prophecy, the First DCA issued their controversial en banc opinion in Sedgwick CMS/Hartford v. Valcourt-Williams (April 2019).
The facts of the case involved a work-from-home Sedgewick insurance adjuster who tripped over her dog while taking a coffee break during her workday. While the JCC held the claim as compensable, the DCA overturned the decision by holding the accident did not “arise out of” her employment. As the dissent pointed out, this case contravened years of precedent which held employees who were injured while engaged in (on and off premises) breaks were for the most part compensable claims. The logic behind those cases was that the employees were engaging in activities which were a necessary function to continue to work i.e. incidental (bathroom, beverage, and even cigarette breaks) and were a benefit to the employers by producing refreshed employees.
The Valcourt-Williams decision criticized the DCA’s prior holdings as having “overlooked or ignored the statutory arising out of” requirement to compensability and the precedent erroneously only focused on a course and scope requirement. Reigning in it’s prior decisions, specific to the personal comfort doctrine, the DCA clung to a strict (some calling it new) interpretation of F.S. 440.09(1) by holding it is not sufficient that the accident be in the course and scope of employment, but also that the employment lead to the risk, that there was a causal connection between the employment and the injury to satisfy “arising out of employment” requirement.
So while many would agree that the personal comfort doctrine had stretched too far in the past, as the dissent points out in Valcourt-Williams, this full retreat by the DCA could create increased liabilities to Employers in circuit court, one way being the removal of an Employer’s immunity protection. This is a decision the DCA previously elected not to take, as the dissent aptly points out “23 years ago in Vigliotti.” Beyond all of the precedent arguments, of which there were many, the dissent zoomed out to show the big picture policy by noting the legislative intent of the WC system is to provide “quick and efficient” medical and indemnity benefits to injured workers to “facilitate” employees’ “return to employment” at a “reasonable cost to employer(s).”
JCC decisions post Valcourt-Williams
So, what has happened following the DCA’s about face with the Valcourt-Williams decision? An analysis of JCC decisions following the case shows that E/C’s have in several cases attempted to expand the Valcourt-Williams decision to support denials of claims which are fact-distinguishable. The JCC’s have not been persuaded to apply Valcourt-Williams to claims which are not of a similar fact pattern (such as Tola v. Winn-Dixie (12/23/19) a deli-counter employee helping a customer beyond the deli counter, in Marrero v. D R Horton (8/28/20) a construction employee who stopped off at his parent’s home during a business errand, and in Galas v. Winn-Dixie (4/24/20) an employee delivering groceries to a co-worker.
A new COVID-19 work-from-home work force
With Valcourt-Williams decided a full year preceding the COVID-19 outbreak, although controversial at the time, it was unforeseeable how commonplace a work-from-home scenario would soon be for thousands upon thousands of employees in Florida and across the USA. So although cases in late 2019 and early 2020 (as noted above) which attempted to use Valcourt-Williams as a sword to denial of compensability, were rejected by JCCs as falling well short of similar fact patterns, we should expect that cases with 2020 dates of accident and those which follow will likely be fact-similar to Valcourt-Williams where homes are considered satellite work-locations. I expect the JCC’s will narrowly apply Valcourt-Williams to these work from home, personal comfort cases and avoid overreaching into idiopathic falls, slip and falls generally, and off premises employment or deviation from employment activity, but only time will tell.
Practical applications for employers
So how can employers mitigate work from home accidents, while still protecting their employees from COVID-19 by allowing work-from-home accommodations? We can look to the dissent in Valcourt-Williams for some tips as to how employers can be proactive in managing at-home workers. A “telecommuting agreement” for an employee working from a home environment should be provided and address the work-at-home environment itself, which Sedgewick’s agreement with Valcourt-Williams did not. Such an agreement should include restricted areas for work, breaks, and lunch-hours. The employer would have a right to inspect and photograph those restricted areas as a satellite location of business in order to manage conditions which may cause foreseeable risk to its employee. The agreement could also address pets/animals as precluded from being present in the work areas, the same as they would be at its principal place of business. The goal of such an agreement would be to set clear boundaries for the employee, define any ambiguities in property and hazards for the employer, and allow an employer to exercise and maintain control of the work environment. Such agreements will eliminate much of the “grey area” with the arising out of criteria highlighted by Valcourt-Williams. Thus, when employees have accidents within designated work areas, during work hours and work activity, in compliance with their agreements, those employees should receive benefits and employers should receive immunity protection.