Here’s an interesting case out of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, Huff v. Regional Transportation Program, in which the Court ruled, for the first time in Maine, that mere reimbursement of a volunteer driver’s mileage expenses does not in and of itself, convert the volunteer to an employee for purposes of worker’s compensation liability. This topic may be of particular interest to nonprofit corporations, social clubs, municipalities, and other organizations who use volunteers to execute their mission.
In Huff, the defendant was a nonprofit transportation services provider based in Cumberland County. The plaintiff was a volunteer driver who used his own vehicle to transport low income, disabled, and elderly people. He was not paid for his services, but received reimbursement of his mileage at the then prevailing IRS business mileage rate, to the tune of $700-$800 every two weeks. He used his own vehicle and paid for his own insurance. Apart from the mileage reimbursement, the plaintiff received no additional payments from the nonprofit. Importantly, he had also signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” with the defendant, which stated among other things: “THE PARTIES SPECIFICALLY AGREE THAT THE VOLUNTEER IS NOT AN EMPLOYEE OF [THE DEFENDANT] AND THAT NO EMPLOYEE/EMPLOYER RELATIONSHIP IS CONTEMPLATED OR IMPLIED BY THIS MOU OR IN EXISTENCE BY REASON OF VOLUNTEER’S ASSISTANCE OF THE GOALS OF [THE NONPROFIT]” (emphasis added).
After he was injured in a serious car accident, the driver filed a workers’ compensation claim, contending that he was an employee within the scope of the Maine Workers’ Compensation Act. Both the hearing officer and the Workers’ Compensation Board Appellate Division denied the claim on the basis that the plaintiff was not an “employee” within the scope of the Maine Workers’ Compensation statute because he did not receive “remuneration” for his services. Te plaintiff claimed that his mileage reimbursement, which in the short term exceeded the plaintiff’s actual out of pocket costs of operating his vehicle, amounted to qualifying payment between an employer and employee. The defendant argued, successfully, that “this theory of remuneration ignores the possibility that a driver may experience poor gas mileage or require more regular maintenance than [the plaintiff], thereby eliminating any claimed remuneration that the driver may experience.”
In our view, this is a common-sense approach that should allow most organizations with volunteers, such as youth organizations, municipal rec departments, and social services agencies, to continue to reimburse their volunteers’ reasonable mileage expenses, without opening the floodgates to workers’ comp liability. It’s also a good example of proactive volunteer management policies such as the MOU quoted above, helping to reduce that risk. While we don’t litigate workers’ comp cases in our firm, in our role as general counsel to many such organizations, we’ll be reminding our clients to look closely at their reimbursement practices to ensure that they do not go beyond the guidelines adopted in this case. Volunteer coordinators should be very careful that their disbursements to volunteers do not drift afield from the narrow holding in this case, which only applies to mileage reimbursement.