Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Idaho Supreme Court - Civil
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TRC Fabrication, LLC, (TRC) purchased steel tubing from Brown Strauss Steel Co. (Brown Strauss), a company located in Fontana, California. Under the sales contract, Brown Strauss sold the tubing “free on board” to TRC. Brown Strauss contracted with Jay Transport, a trucking company based in Rigby, Idaho, which in turn engaged Dale Kelly, an independent owner-operator of a semi-truck to transport the tubing. Kelly hauled the tubing to Idaho Falls and delivered the load to TRC. When employees of TRC began to unload the tubing from the trailer, a forklift operator dropped the steel tubing, which then slid across the pavement and struck Kelly, seriously injuring his right leg, ankle, and foot. Kelly and his wife Nancy filed a complaint against TRC, seeking to recover damages for negligence and loss of consortium. After TRC filed a motion seeking summary judgment, the district court granted the motion and dismissed the Kellys’ complaint. The district court concluded that Idaho’s worker’s compensation law extended statutory immunity to TRC and limited the Kellys’ recovery to workers’ compensation benefits. The question this case presented for the Idaho Supreme Court's review was whether the immunity afforded a statutory employer applied to TRC to bar the Kellys' complaint for damages. The Supreme Court reversed the district court’s order granting summary judgment, vacated the judgment entered, and remanded the case for further proceedings: the district court erred in concluding that TRC was Kelly’s category one statutory employer. View "Kelly v. TRC Fabrication LLC" on Justia Law

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J.R. Simplot Company (“Simplot”) hired Erik Knudsen for a position as a packaging engineer. Early on in his employment, Knudsen was told that he would be the startup manager on a Simplot project in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Knudsen was unfamiliar with the startup manager position and questioned whether those job duties were fairly within the scope of his employment as a packaging engineer. Simplot and Knudsen disagreed as to the nature of his job, leading to the eventual termination of Knudsen’s employment. After his dismissal, Knudsen filed this action, alleging fraud, promissory estoppel, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The district court granted Simplot’s motion for summary judgment as to all of Knudsen’s claims and denied Simplot’s subsequent motion for attorney’s fees. The Idaho Supreme Court determined Knudsen's fraud claim was cognizable notwithstanding the at-will employment doctrine. However, the Supreme Court concluded summary judgment on all of Knudsen's claims was appropriate. View "Knudsen v. J.R. Simplot Company" on Justia Law

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This case arose from an Idaho Industrial Commission determination denying an application for unemployment benefits. William Wittkopf appealed pro se the Commission’s determination that he was ineligible for unemployment benefits because he voluntarily quit his job without good cause and he willfully made a false statement or willfully failed to report a material fact in his unemployment application. On appeal, Wittkopf challenged the factual findings made by the Commission and argued it violated his right to due process by taking into consideration the fact that he voluntarily terminated his employment approximately two and a half years prior to applying for unemployment benefits. After review, the Idaho Supreme Court concluded: (1) Wittkopf failed to provide a cogent argument on appeal regarding whether his right to due process was violated; (2) the Commission’s determination that Wittkopf voluntarily terminated his employment at Stewart’s Firefighter without good cause and without exhausting all reasonable alternatives was supported by substantial and competent evidence; and (3) the Commission’s determination that Wittkopf willfully made a false statement or willfully failed to report a material fact in order to obtain benefits was supported by substantial and competent evidence. Accordingly, the Commission’s decision and order denying Wittkopf’s application for unemployment benefits was affirmed. View "Wittkopf v. Stewart's Firefighter Food Catering, Inc." on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was whether claimant Curtis Stanley filed a timely complaint against the Industrial Special Indemnity Fund ("ISIF") when Stanley filed his complaint more than five years after his industrial accident and more than one year after receiving his last payment of income benefits. The Idaho Industrial Commission (“Commission”) held it did not have continuing jurisdiction to entertain Stanley’s complaint against ISIF for non-medical benefits. The Commission found Idaho Code section 72-706 barred Stanley’s complaint and dismissed it. Stanley appealed, arguing continuing jurisdiction over medical benefits alone was sufficient to confer jurisdiction over complaints against ISIF and that the Commission erred in determining section 72-706 barred his complaint. Finding the Commission erred in determining section 72-706 barred Stanley's complaint, the Idaho Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision. View "Stanley v. Idaho Industrial Special Indemnity Fund" on Justia Law

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Originally, Western Pacific Timber, LLC (WPT) was solely owned by Timothy Blixseth (Blixseth). Andrew Hawes contended Blixseth hired him to be general counsel for WPT in 2005, and that when he was hired, Blixseth agreed on behalf of WPT to provide him with a severance package based on the length of his employment. After 2012, Blixseth no longer retained any ownership interest or management responsibility in WPT. When WPT terminated Hawes’ employment in 2017, Hawes asserted that he had a severance agreement in place that had been negotiated with Blixseth on behalf of WPT, by which he would receive $100,000 for each year of employment, capped at five years, for a total of $500,000. However, Hawes could not produce a signed copy of any agreement. WPT refused to pay the claimed severance pay, and instead offered a significantly smaller severance package. Hawes rejected WPT’s offer. Hawes then sued WPT for breach of contract. The case proceeded to trial on Hawes’ claim of an oral contract. Ultimately, the jury returned a special verdict finding that WPT was liable to Hawes for $500,000 in severance pay, an award which was later trebled by the district court. The district court also awarded Hawes the full amount of his requested attorney fees which constituted 35% of Hawes’ gross recovery. WPT unsuccessfully moved for a new trial. Finding no reversible error, the Idaho Supreme Court affirmed the district court. View "Hawes v. Western Pacific Timber LLC" on Justia Law

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Connie Schoeffel worked for Thorne Research, Inc. (“Thorne”) as a kitchen manager. In 2016, Thorne announced that it would be moving its operations from Idaho to South Carolina. For those employees who would not be relocating to South Carolina, Thorne offered an employee retention program to encourage them to continue working at the Idaho facility until the South Carolina facility was ready. As part of this program, Thorne prepared a “Release of Claims Agreement” (“the Agreement”) providing that Thorne would pay participating employees “bargained-for compensation” in exchange for giving up certain rights, including the right to quit before their positions were eliminated. Schoeffel signed this Agreement approximately six weeks before her last day of work. After her separation, Schoeffel filed for unemployment benefits without reporting the retention payments as income. Around the time Schoeffel received her fourth benefit payment, the Department learned of the payments that Thorne owed Schoeffel under the Agreement. The Department determined that those payments constituted reportable “severance pay” under Idaho Code section 72-1367(4). Consequently, the Department determined that Schoeffel was receiving severance pay and was required to repay the unemployment benefits she had received. Schoeffel appealed to the Department’s Appeals Bureau, which initially ruled in her favor but affirmed the Department’s decision on reconsideration. Schoeffel then appealed to the Industrial Commission which affirmed the Appeals Bureau’s decision. The Idaho Supreme Court determined the payments were reportable severance pay, applying Parker v. Underwriters Labs, Inc., 96 P.3d 618 (2004). "[B]ecause the primary purpose of the Agreement was to secure the relinquishment of Schoeffel’s right to quit, rather than to compensate her for her past service to Thorne, they were not made 'as a result of' severance under Idaho Code section 72-1367(4). Therefore, the retention payments do not constitute reportable severance pay." The Commission's decision was reversed. View "Schoeffel v. Idaho Dept. of Labor" on Justia Law

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Travelers Insurance Co. appealed a district court decision to affirm a final order of the Idaho Department of Insurance in favor of Ultimate Logistics, LLC (“Ultimate”). The Department of Insurance’s final order upheld a hearing officer’s determination that two mechanics working for Ultimate were improperly included in a premium-rate calculation made by Travelers. In its petition for review, Travelers argued the Department of Insurance acted outside the scope of its statutory authority in determining that the mechanics could not be included in the premium-rate calculation. The district court rejected this argument. Finding no reversible error in the district court's order, the Idaho Supreme Court affirmed. View "Travelers Insurance v. Ultimate Logistics, LLC" on Justia Law

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After Christine Nelson quit her job at Franklin Building Supply in Pocatello, Idaho, due to what she described as a hostile and demeaning work environment, she filed for unemployment benefits with the Department of Labor. The Department denied Nelson’s request for benefits, concluding that she quit her job without good cause because “reasonable alternatives were not exhausted prior to quitting.” Nelson mailed her protest via the U.S. Postal Service (“USPS”) from Pocatello, Idaho. Her letter arrived at the Department’s offices in Boise on March 7, one day past the deadline. Because the postmark did not indicate the date of mailing, Nelson’s protest was dismissed by the Department for being untimely. After a hearing, an appeals examiner concluded that although there was a USPS postmark stamped on the envelope, the red ink “blend[ed] with the red stamps,” obscuring the date. Thus, while the distribution center could be discerned from the postmark, “the remainder of the postmark [was] illegible.” Because the envelope lacked a date on the postmark, the appeals examiner concluded that the envelope should be treated as if it had no postmark at all, thereby making the date of filing the date received, which was March 7, 2019 - one day too late. Nelson timely appealed the decision of the appeals examiner to the Industrial Commission, arguing that the letter was mailed by March 1 and that she had no control over its late arrival or the absence of a legible postmark. The Commission concurred with the appeal's examiner. The Department of Labor nor the Industrial Commission considered Nelson's reason for appealing in the first place: that she lacked good cause to leave her employment. Focusing instead on the timeliness of her appeal, the Idaho Supreme Court determined the Department and Commission were mistaken in holding Nelson's filing was too late: "since once a letter is deposited for mailing it is entirely within the control of the USPS, the obscured date on the postmark stamp could only have been a result of USPS error. Thus, by the application of reason and common sense, the delivery of this letter on March 7—even with an illegible date on the postmark—conclusively proves that Nelson must have deposited her appeals letter into USPS custody on or before the March 6 filing deadline." The decision in this matter was reversed and remanded for consideration of the merits of Nelson's case. View "Nelson v. IDOL and Franklin Group" on Justia Law

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Joanie Smith was employed by the Glenns Ferry Highway District (the District) when she witnessed the District’s office manager overpaying herself on several occasions. Smith reported the overpayments to the District’s superintendent. Sometime after Smith reported these overpayments, the District terminated Smith’s employment. Smith filed suit, alleging adverse employment action in the form of discharge. At trial, the trial court ruled it would use the jury in an advisory capacity concerning any front pay damages. The jury returned a special verdict for Smith, awarding her both back pay and front pay. Following the jury’s verdict, the trial court rejected the jury’s verdict awarding front pay, and entered a reduced award. The trial court reasoned that: (1) the jury’s verdict with respect to front pay was advisory because front pay was an equitable remedy when awarded in lieu of reinstatement; (2) Smith had not properly pleaded “failure to promote” as an adverse action in addition to discharge; and (3) the jury had incorrectly used an erroneous full-time employment status in calculating front pay. The trial court also reduced Smith’s requested attorney fees to an amount less than she had contracted to pay. Smith unsuccessfully moved for post-judgment relief. Smith appealed, and the District cross-appealed, arguing that the issue of back pay also sounded in equity, and that the trial court should have reduced the jury award of back pay. After review, the Idaho Supreme Court determined the trial court erred: (1) when it ruled that there was no right to a jury trial on the issue of front pay; (2) by refusing to include the adverse action of “failure to hire” in the jury instructions and special verdict form; (3) by failing to instruct the jury on the “risk of uncertainty” to be borne by the District in its determination of damages; and (4) by denying Smith post-judgment interest. The Court determined the "failure to hire" instruction and "risk of uncertainty" errors were not prejudicial, and the jury award of front pay should have been reinstated. Smith’s request for entry of judgment nunc pro tunc was declined; however, on remand the trial court was asked to determine whether judgment nunc pro tunc should be entered as of the date of the jury’s verdict. Furthermore, the trial court abused its discretion in reducing the award of attorney fees from the amount Smith requested. The matter was remanded for further proceeedings. View "Smith v. Glenns Ferry Hwy Dist" on Justia Law

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Brett Woolley appealed an Idaho Industrial Commission (“Commission”) decision that found him ineligible for unemployment benefits. The Commission determined that Woolley was ineligible for benefits because he was a corporate officer whose claim for benefits was based on wages from a corporation in which he had an ownership interest. The Commission also determined Woolley willfully made a false statement by saying he had not received wages or performed services as a corporate officer. After review, the Idaho Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s determination that Woolley was ineligible for benefits due to his status as a corporate officer because it was supported by substantial and competent evidence. However, the Court found Woolley did not willfully misrepresent his status as a corporate officer, "The statute makes no mention of a claimant’s performance of services as a corporate officer. To compound the confusion, IDOL provides no information in the unemployment handbook or on its website to explain why it is necessary for claimants to report their corporate officer status when filing a claim for benefits. To serve as the basis for a willful failure to report a material fact, the question to be answered by a claimant must be accurately grounded in the legal requirements of the statute." View "Woolley v. Idaho Dept. of Labor" on Justia Law