Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law

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Plaintiff Dawn Boynton appealed the trial court’s dismissal of her wrongful termination complaint against her former employer. In her amended complaint, plaintiff alleges that she was terminated from her employment as a medical assistant at defendants’ medical office in Rutland, Vermont in September 2017 in violation of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and contrary to whistleblower protections. The trial court found that the employee handbook was unambiguous and established an at-will employment relationship that was fatal to plaintiff’s claim of a violation of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The court also rejected plaintiff’s assertion that defendants violated public policy by terminating her because she qualified as a “whistleblower” under the terms of the handbook, concluding that neither the handbook nor the whistleblower statute covered the conduct she reported. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded plaintiff failed to state a claim for violation of a clear and compelling public policy. Furthermore, she did not state a claim under the handbook’s whistleblower policy. Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded the trial court properly dismissed plaintiff’s case. View "Boynton v. ClearChoice MD, MSO, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Vermont Labor Relations Board (Board) dismissed a petition for the election of a collective-bargaining representative filed by appellant-petitioner, Vermont State Colleges Faculty Federation (Federation). The petition sought to include part-time faculty teaching for the Vermont State Colleges (VSC) distance-learning program (DLP) in the existing part-time faculty collective bargaining unit represented by the Federation. The Federation filed an initial and amended petition, in response to which the Board issued three orders: an original and two amended orders. The order at issue here was the second amended order: the Board dismissed the petition for failing to propose an appropriate bargaining unit. On appeal, the Federation asked the Vermont Supreme Court to reverse the Board’s dismissal and order the Board to reinstate the petition and conduct an election among the proposed unit members. VSC argued the Supreme Court should affirm the Board’s original decision and order an election or, in the alternative, affirm the Board’s second amended order dismissing the petition. The Supreme Court found the Board’s factual findings demonstrated that DLP faculty and on-campus faculty had different student populations, geographic locations, faculty experiences and teaching platforms, and hiring practices, and compensation considerations. The Board found that the two groups had minimal interactions, because, due to the increase in distance learning, they were inherent competitors, and that new issues for online educators not shared by traditional faculty would arise in the near future. All of these findings supported the Board’s conclusion that there were sufficient differences in the interests between these two groups that combining them would result in an inappropriate collective-bargaining unit. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the Board’s dismissal. View "In re Vermont State Colleges Faculty Federation, AFT Local 3180" on Justia Law

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The Washington South Education Association was the representative of all licensed teachers within the Northfield schools. The Northfield School Board and the Association negotiated and entered into the CBA, which was in effect from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018. Paul Clayton was a middle-school physical-education teacher at the Northfield Middle High School (the School) and was a member of the Association. Therefore, Clayton’s employment was subject to the CBA. In late fall 2017, administrators at the School received complaints about Clayton’s workplace conduct. The complaints alleged that Clayton created a hostile work environment by intimidating his colleagues and advised a student (his daughter) to punch another student in the face. In response to the allegations, Clayton was placed on paid leave while the administrators investigated the complaints and interviewed a number of the School’s staff. Upon the conclusion of their investigation, the administrators wrote a letter to the School’s superintendent describing their findings and noting that while they gave Clayton the opportunity to respond, Clayton declined to respond in a follow-up meeting and then a second meeting scheduled to receive his rebuttal a few days later. After receiving the administrators’ letter, the superintendent wrote a letter to Clayton offering him an opportunity to meet with her to discuss the matter, and attached to the letter a summary of the allegations against Clayton. About a week later, the superintendent met with Clayton and his Association representation. Clayton did not file a notice of appeal of his ultimate suspension. Shortly thereafter, Clayton and the Association, now represented by the Vermont affiliate of the National Education Association (Vermont-NEA), submitted a grievance alleging a violation the CBA. The Board declined to accept the grievance, noting Clayton did not follow the prescribed termination procedures outlined in the CBA. Vermont-NEA thereafter invoked the CBA's arbitration procedures. A trial court agreed with the Board, and Clayton and the Association appealed. The Vermont Supreme Court determined Clayton and the Association failed to exhaust statutory remedies as required by 16 V.S.A. 1752, thus the trial court properly enjoined arbitration. View "Northfield School Board v. Washington South Education Association" on Justia Law

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During road-construction operations, a truck owned or operated by Eustis Cable Enterprises, LTD, which was participating in the construction activity, struck and killed a flagger for Green Mountain Flaggers. The truck hit the flagger when the driver began backing it up in the southbound breakdown lane on Route 7 in Middlebury, Vermont. In response to the accident, the Commissioner of Labor investigated and ultimately cited Eustis for two alleged violations of 29 C.F.R. 1926.601: a failure to ensure that the vehicle’s backup alarm was audible above the surrounding noise level; and a failure to assure the safety devices were in a safe condition at the beginning of each shift. The Commissioner assessed $11,340 in fines ($5670 for each violation). Eustis appealed the civil division’s affirmance of the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Act (VOSHA) review board’s determination that Eustis failed to meet VOSHA’s motor-vehicle requirements and the resulting assessment of a fine for the violations. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the evidence and findings did not support the board’s conclusion that Eustis was on notice of the violation and accordingly reverse and strike the citation alleging a violation of 29 C.F.R. 1926.601(b)(14) and associated penalty. View "Commissioner of Labor v. Eustis Cable Enterprises, LTD" on Justia Law

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This case arose out of a dispute between an employer, MyWebGrocer, and an employee, David Tanzer, regarding the payment of phantom shares MyWebGrocer promised in an agreement between the parties. MyWebGrocer appealed when the trial court granted summary judgment in Tanzer's favor, finding that MyWebGrocer breached this agreement. The employer also appealed the jury verdict finding that the company breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, the jury’s damages awards, and a post-verdict order awarding Tanzer attorney’s fees in connection with the litigation between the parties. Tanzer appealed the trial court’s post-verdict decision on attorney’s fees as well, arguing that the court erroneously limited the amount of fees that he could collect. Tanzer also appealed the trial court’s decision on summary judgment that the amount he was due under the phantom share plan did not fall within the definition of wages for purposes of Vermont’s wage statutes. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision regarding whether MyWebGrocer breached the parties’ agreement and vacated the jury’s verdict and damages awards in connection with Tanzer’s claim that MyWebGrocer breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The Supreme Court also reversed the trial court’s decision at summary judgment on Tanzer’s statutory claim and concluded the value of the phantom shares fell within the relevant statutory definition of wages. The Court did not need to address the court’s post-verdict decision regarding whether Tanzer could collect attorney’s fees. View "Tanzer v. MyWebGrocer, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Donald and Preston Sweet, who are father and son, sued defendants Roy and Catherine St. Pierre in June 2014 alleging that defendants failed to pay them wages for their work improving a stand of maple trees on defendants’ land for maple sugaring. Plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s judgment in favor of defendants on plaintiffs’ claim for unpaid wages under the Prompt Pay Act (PPA). Plaintiffs argued the trial court erred in concluding that no contract existed between the parties as required to support a PPA claim. Defendants cross-appealed, arguing the court should have awarded them attorney’s fees because they were the substantially prevailing party and erroneously excluded evidence relevant to their assault claim. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision on the merits, but reversed and remanded for it to award reasonable attorney’s fees to defendants. View "Sweet v. St. Pierre" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Ira Martel appealed the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment on his personal injury claims in favor of his employer, defendant Connor Contracting, Inc., and two co-employees, defendants Jason Clark and Stephen Connor. This case was about two separate exceptions to the exclusivity rule of workers’ compensation, the first of which applied when an employee is injured other than by accident, and the second of which applied when a person or entity could be held personally liable for an employee’s injuries. In August 2013, plaintiff was part of a four-person crew employed by Connor Contracting to perform roof repair work at the Montpelier Health Center. Defendant Jason Clark was the worksite foreperson, and defendant Stephen Connor was the treasurer of Connor Contracting and one of the company owners. While working on the project, plaintiff and the other members of the roofing crew used a personal-fall-arrest system (PFAS), which was safety equipment provided by Connor Contracting and required by the company’s safety program rules, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA). Plaintiff was completing the soffit work when he fell from the edge of the roof, hit the ground below, and was injured. He was not wearing a PFAS at the time he fell. The parties disputed whether a complete PFAS system was still at the project site on that day and available for plaintiff’s use. Connor Contracting disputes the removal of the PFAS and states that defendant Clark left two harnesses and lanyards at the project site. The Vermont Supreme Court held plaintiff’s action against Connor Contracting was barred by the exclusive remedy provision of Vermont’s Workers’ Compensation Act. Furthermore, plaintiff’s action against the individual defendants is barred because the acts that plaintiff alleges give rise to liability fell within the scope of a nondelegable corporate duty and defendants, therefore, cannot be held personally liable for plaintiff’s injuries. View "Martel v. Connor Contracting, Inc." on Justia Law

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The State appealed a Vermont Labor Relations Board decision interpreting a collective bargaining agreement between the State and the Vermont State Employees’ Association (VSEA). The question at issue was whether a change made to the agreement’s family-leave provisions in 1999 limited an employee’s right to use more than six weeks of accrued, paid sick leave while on family leave because of the employee’s own serious illness. The Board found that, although the agreement itself was ambiguous, extrinsic evidence showed that the parties did not intend to limit the use of sick leave. The State argued on appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court that the contract was not ambiguous and that the limitation on use of sick leave applies. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the Board. View "In re Grievance of Kobe Kelley" on Justia Law

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Claimant Lionel Beasley appealed a decision of the Employment Security Board, which denied him unemployment compensation benefits because it found that he performed services for an educational institution and was considered to have a reasonable assurance to perform services in a similar capacity for the next regularly scheduled academic term under 21 V.S.A. 1343(c)(1). Claimant was first employed by Champlain College as an adjunct professor during the 2015-2016 academic year. He taught three classes during both the fall and spring terms. At the end of the spring 2016 term, claimant applied for unemployment compensation benefits. Although his claim was initially denied by a claims adjudicator, on appeal, an administrative judge reversed and granted benefits. In granting benefits, the administrative judge noted that because claimant had not received an employment offer letter for the upcoming academic term and had been notified that at least one of his classes may not be offered due to low enrollment, “the uncertainties for the upcoming term are sufficiently great that [claimant] cannot be said to have a reasonable assurance of returning to the same or similar work that he performed in the previous academic term.” However, at the end of the spring 2017 term, he again applied for unemployment compensation benefits and was denied. The claims adjudicator found he had a reasonable assurance of employment during the following term. The administrative judge agreed with the claims adjudicator that claimant had reasonable assurance to perform the same services during the next academic term and noted that claimant “and his attorney want[ed] to interpret the term ‘reasonable assurance’ as an absolute guarantee of employment, and that simply is not the correct interpretation.” The administrative judge commented that “the Department [of Labor] must only find that it is highly probable that the same job is available, and the credible facts in the record show[ed] that to be the case in this instance.” Claimant appealed the administrative judge’s decision to the Employment Security Board. After hearing and review, the Board issued a decision upholding the denial because it found the administrative judge’s conclusions “factually supported and legally correct.” Finding no reversible error in the Board's adjudication, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed denial of benefits. View "Beasley v. Department of Labor (Champlain College, Inc., Employer)" on Justia Law

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Jason Lillie appeals the Employment Security Board’s denial of his claim for unemployment benefits. In July 2014, Lillie was an employee of Amerigas Propane, Inc. and suffered an injury while working. He reported the injury to his employer, which in turn reported it to its worker’s compensation insurer. He sought medical attention for his injury shortly after being hurt but was able to continue working for several weeks, most of it on modified or light duty. In October, Amerigas fired Lillie for an alleged safety violation. A few days later, Lillie’s doctor indicated he was medically unable to work. Lillie expressed concern that he was ineligible for unemployment benefits because he was not able to work but was told he must apply in order to receive economic benefits. Lillie then sought workers’ compensation temporary disability benefits, which were initially denied by the insurer. Without any income or compensation disability benefits for several weeks, Lillie sought economic assistance from the Vermont Economic Services Division of the Department for Children and Families. Lillie was told by Economic Services that in order to be eligible for economic assistance he would have to file for unemployment benefits, even if he felt he would not qualify for them. With his workers’ compensation claim still in dispute, and based upon the information he had received from Economic Services, Lillie filed a claim for unemployment benefits. The Unemployment Division found him to be monetarily eligible for unemployment benefits when he sought them in December 2014. While he had the necessary base period wages to make him monetarily eligible for benefits, Lillie was not able to work and available for work, as required by 21 V.S.A. 1343(a)(3), because he was medically unable to work. He was, therefore, denied unemployment compensation. "At a minimum, coordination of the important information between the Unemployment Division and Economic Services concerning monetary eligibility, the establishment of a benefit year, and the use of wages and the use of wages prior to disability in connection therewith in the case of a worker injured on the job may have avoided this quagmire. Following the advice given by Economic Services, which we do not doubt was provided in good faith to Lillie, resulted in the unintended consequence of his loss of unemployment benefits once he regained his ability to work in 2017." The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the denial of unemployment benefits; the Unemployment Division applied the law properly, and the Court was "not at liberty to rewrite the applicable statutes to obtain a different outcome." View "Lillie v. Department of Labor" on Justia Law