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THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF MONTANA
Petitioner and Appellant,
UNINSURED EMPLOYERS' FUND,
Respondent and Respondent,
DECKERT, d/b/a DAVID
Respondent and Employer.
Submitted on Briefs: June 27, 2002
Decided: December 20, 2002
1 Appellant Joseph Geiger (Geiger) appeals from the Workers' Compensation Court's judgment dated August 22, 2001, where the Workers' Compensation Court ruled that Geiger was not an employee at the time of his injury and therefore was not entitled to compensation from the Uninsured Employers' Fund (UEF). We affirm.
2 Geiger presents the following three issues on appeal:
3 1. Did the Workers' Compensation Court err in concluding that David Deckert d/b/a David Deckert Trucking was not an "employer" as defined by § 39-71-117(1) and (4), MCA (1997)?
4 2. Did the Workers' Compensation Court err in concluding that Geiger was not an "employee" or "worker" as defined by § 39-71-118(l)(a), MCA (1997)?
5 3. Did the Workers' Compensation Court err in concluding that neither the UEF nor Deckert was equitably estopped from denying compensation for Geiger's injuries?
3 In March of 1997, Geiger was hired by David Deckert (Deckert), d/b/a David Deckert Trucking (Deckert Trucking), an interstate trucking business under authority from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). In late 1997, Deckert financed the purchase of a second truck and leased a second trailer. Geiger began driving the second truck and leased trailer. In 1998, Deckert's attorney drafted an independent contractor agreement for Geiger. Although he was repeatedly asked to do so, Geiger never signed the agreement. Finally, Deckert started withholding taxes and social security from Geiger's wages, and in May 1998, he obtained workers' compensation coverage for Geiger.
4 A couple of months later,
Geiger and Deckert discussed Geiger's purchase of the second truck. Because
Geiger was unable to secure adequate financing, the two parties entered
into a sales contract whereby Geiger paid monthly installments to Deckert
who in turn paid the original lender. The contract provided that Geiger
would pay the insurance premiums, maintenance, license fees and fuel costs
for the truck. The parties also entered into a lease agreement that required
Geiger to pay the license fees, insurance, and maintenance of the trailer.
Both the contract and the lease agreement specifically provided that during
the terms of the agreements Geiger was required to operate the tractor
and trailer under Deckert Trucking's ICC authority, because Deckert recognized
that until the truck was in Geiger's name, Geiger could not license and
insure the truck, nor get his own ICC authority required for certain interstate
hauls. Deckert's attorney drafted the sales contact and lease agreement
in September of 1998; however, they were not signed until April 1, 1999.
6 The amounts received by
Deckert were insufficient to cover Geiger's payments under the contract
and lease. As a result, Deckert fell behind in his payments to the original
lender. On June 23, 1999, Deckert informed Geiger that the monies received
were insufficient to cover Geiger's expenses. Two days later, while driving
the truck through Illinois, Geiger sustained a closed head injury when
he fell ten feet from the top of his tractor trailer to the concrete.
At the time he was injured, Geiger was hauling a load for ProAm, a brokerage
company, pursuant to Deckert's ICC authority. Deckert did not have workers'
compensation insurance coverage at the time of Geiger's injury.
8 Geiger appealed the UEF's determination to the Workers' Compensation Court. At trial, the UEF defended its initial denial, reasoning that Geiger was not an "employee or worker in this state" as required by § 39-71-118(10)(a), MCA (1997). Conversely, during the trial Deckert argued that Geiger was precluded from workers' compensation benefits because Geiger was an independent contractor as defined in § 39-71-120, MCA (1997).
9 The Workers' Compensation
Court ruled that Deckert was not an "employer," and that Geiger
was not his "employee" as defined in the Workers' Compensation
Act. Therefore, it concluded that Geiger was not eligible for benefits
under the Act. The Workers' Compensation Court did not address the issue
of whether Geiger was an independent contractor. Geiger filed a timely
post-trial motion in which he raised the issue of equitable estoppel.
The Workers' Compensation Court denied Geiger's motion for reconsideration
and rejected the equitable estoppel argument. Following the timely filing
of this appeal, David Deckert passed away and his estate elected not to
11 Workers' compensation benefits are determined by the statutes in effect as of the date of injury. Buckman v. Montana Deaconess Hosp. (1986), 224 Mont. 318, 321, 730 P.2d 380, 382. The 1997 version of the Act applies since it was in effect at the time of Geiger's injury. Accordingly, all statutory references hereinafter will be to the 1997 version of the Act unless otherwise indicated.
12 Did the Workers' Compensation Court err in concluding that Deckert was not an "employer" as defined by § 39-71-117(1) and (4), MCA?
13 The resolution of this
case involves the interpretation and application of §§ 39-71-117
and 39-71-118, MCA, which define "employer" and "employee"
under the Montana Workers' Compensation Act. Because the Act "applies
to all employers, as defined in 39-71-117, and to all employees, as defined
in 39-71-118," these provisions indirectly establish who must provide
workers' compensation coverage and what workers are covered under the
Act. Section 39-71-401(1), MCA.
15 In concluding that Deckert
did not "use" Geiger in his interstate trucking business, the
Workers' Compensation Court focused on whether Geiger had benefitted Deckert.
The findings of the Workers' Compensation Court indicated that Deckert
had not received any percentage or other fee for the loads carried by
Geiger, and that he had not received any financial benefit from Geiger's
actual expenses of operating the truck since the signing of the contract
and lease on April 1, 1999. Because the Workers' Compensation Court was
"unable to discern any 'use' to which Deckert put Geiger after they
entered into the truck and trailer contract and lease," the Workers'
Compensation Court held that Deckert was not an employer under §
17 Geiger maintains that the Workers' Compensation Court erred in concluding that Deckert was not an employer under the Act. First, Geiger argues that the Workers' Compensation Court's interpretation of "use" in the first definition is too narrow because it requires an employee to financially benefit or profit his employer. Geiger asserts that the Workers' Compensation Court's interpretation of "use" would allow a floundering business to avoid paying workers' compensation premiums for its employees solely because it was not turning a profit.
18 Because the resolution
of this issue is dependent on the meaning of the word "use"
in § 39-71-117(4), MCA, we look to the rules of statutory construction
which require the language of a statute to be construed according to its
plain meaning. If the language is clear and unambiguous, no further interpretation
is required. Rausch v. State Compensation Ins. Fund, 2002 MT 203, 33,
311 Mont. 210, 33, 54 P.3d 25, 33; Lovell v. State Compensation Mut. Ins.
Fund (1993), 260 Mont. 279, 285, 860 P.2d 95, 99.
20 The trial court's reasoning that because Deckert did not use Geiger, Geiger was not in Deckert's service, is also sound. Accordingly, we agree with the Workers' Compensation Court that Deckert did not use Geiger, that Deckert did not have Geiger in service, and thus Deckert was not an employer under either definition.
21 Did the Workers' Compensation Court err in concluding that Geiger was not an "employee" or "worker" as defined by § 39-71-118(1)(a), MCA?
22 Because we have ruled that Deckert was not Geiger's employer, we need not consider whether Geiger was Deckert's employee.
23 Did the Workers' Compensation Court err in concluding that neither the UEF nor Deckert was equitably estopped from denying compensation for Geiger's injuries?
24 Lastly, Geiger contends that Deckert and the UEF should be equitably estopped from denying his claim. "Equitable estoppel applies when an employer . . . has taken some positive action which either prevents a claimant from filing a timely claim or leads the claimant reasonably to believe she need not file such a claim." Kuzara v. State Compensation Ins. Fund (1996), 279 Mont. 223, 231, 928 P.2d 136, 141. One of the six requirements for the application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel is conduct amounting to a representation or a concealment of material facts. See Kuzara, 279 Mont. at 231, 928 P.2d at 141.
25 Geiger insists that Deckert
concealed from him the fact that Deckert had discontinued paying for Geiger's
workers' compensation coverage. To that end, Geiger categorically denies
that he was ever notified by Deckert that he would no longer be paying
Geiger's premiums. The Workers' Compensation Court was not convinced by
Geiger's testimony on this matter; instead it was "persuaded that
at that time [April 1, 1999] Geiger understood that any workers' compensation
insurance was his responsibility." Therefore, because Deckert had
not concealed or misrepresented that he had ceased paying for Geiger's
coverage, it ruled that Deckert and the UEF were not equitably estopped
from denying Geiger's claim.
27 The order of the Workers' Compensation Court is affirmed in its entirety for the reasons discussed above.
/S/ KARLA M. GRAY
26 I dissent from the majority's Opinion. I would reverse the judgment of the Workers' Compensation Court.
27 The Workers' Compensation Court and the majority have correctly identified the narrow issue in this case. It is simply whether at the time of his injury the claimant, Joseph Geiger, was being "used" as a driver by David Deckert, d/b/a David Deckert Trucking. Accepting the majority's definition of used as "to put into service or apply it for a purpose; . . . ." it is clear that Geiger was serving a purpose for Deckert at the time of his injury. In fact, the nature of Geiger's and Deckert's relationship changed in no substantive way from the period prior to March of 1999 when Deckert carried workers' compensation insurance for Geiger and considered him an employee and the date of Geiger's injury on June 25, 1999.
28 At the time of Geiger's
injury, the tractor and trailer that he was operating were still owned
by Deckert; it was still insured by Deckert; it was still being operated
pursuant to Deckert's interstate commerce commission authority; the brokers
through whom jobs were obtained still recognized Deckert as the trucking
operator and all payments which came from those brokers went directly
to Deckert who then controlled the disbursement of those funds by making
the lease payments, depositing $500 a month in an escrow account, paying
various expenses associated with the truck's operation, and making payments
for the truck which were actually owed by Deckert to a third party.
30 In 5, the majority attaches
significance to the fact that Deckert made no profit from Geiger's trucking
operations. The reason is self evident from the first sentence in the
following paragraph. The amount that Geiger was able to generate was insufficient
to cover the payments for the tractor and trailer and its expenses. However,
the mere fact that the operation was unprofitable should not determine
the nature of the parties' relationship. Geiger still prolonged the period
of time over which Deckert was able to own the tractor and trailer which
he would have to have returned to the third party earlier had Deckert
not operated it for him and provided him with most of the income from
33 The majority Opinion exalts form over substance and falls victim to another smoke and mirror method of avoiding coverage for the state's injured workers.
34 For these reasons, I dissent from the majority Opinion. I conclude, based on the undisputed facts, that Geiger was Deckert's employee at the time of his injury and would, therefore, reverse the judgment of the Workers' Compensation Court.
/S/ TERRY N. TRIEWEILER
Justices Jim Regnier and Jim Nelson join in the foregoing dissent.
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