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For those who remember back in 2019, I posted about a Court of Special Appeals decision which found that a poultry farm manager was a joint employee of both the poultry farm owner and the poultry company, Tyson Farms, Inc. Tyson appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals of Maryland. The Court of Appeals recently reversed that decision, finding that the circuit court correctly submitted to the jury. The evidence on the farm manager being a joint employee was susceptible to differing reasonable inferences.
The poultry farm manager was hired to work on a poultry farm in Worcester County in 2009 which grew chickens for Tyson. Terry Ung owned the farm at the time, and hired the poultry farm manager to assist him. Ung passed away in late 2009, and Tyson representatives trained the poultry farm manager in maintaining the farm and raising chickens since Ung's widow was unfamiliar with such practices. In 2013, the farm was sold to another owner living in northern Virginia. Tyson only agreed to continue the farm relationship if the new owner kept the poultry farm manager on the farm.
Under the terms of the poultry production contract, Tyson retained ownership of the birds, provided feed and medication, determined how long the flocks were on the farm, and provide veterinary services and technical advice. The contract included various addendums setting out detailed instructions on how to raise poultry on this farm.
Tyson continually provided oversight to ensure the poultry farm operated in compliance with the contract. The poultry manager lived on the poultry farm and frequently met with Tyson's representatives about adjustments during the flock's cycle.
After suffering from an occupational disease disablement, the poultry farm manager filed a claim against his employer (the poultry farm's new owner), and the Uninsured Employers' Fund (UEF) became a party to the suit because the employer did not have workers' compensation insurance. The poultry farm manager and UEF then brought Tyson Farms, Inc. (Tyson) into the claim.
After a hearing, the Workers’ Compensation Commission ruled that the poultry farm manager’s injuries arose from his employment on the poultry farm, and that both the poultry farm owner and Tyson were his co-employers. Tyson appealed the decision to the circuit court.
On appeal, a two-day jury trial was held with the sole issue of whether the poultry farm manager was co-employed by Tyson. The jury returned with a verdict that Tyson was not a co-employer of the poultry farm manager. The UEF appealed the decision to the Court of Special Appeals. The Court of Special Appeals reversed the circuit court, finding that the poultry farm manager was Tyson’s co-employee.
In looking at past decisions, the Court of Appeals found that the proper place to determine if the relationship between individual and company was a co-employment was a question for the jury to decide. Typically, when conflicting inferences can be drawn from the evidence on an employee-employer relationship, a jury should consider it.
The court next turned to the issue of control exercised by Tyson over the farm manager’s conduct. Although in past decisions, the court had highlighted that control was the decisive factor, there were differing reasonable views drawn from the evidence in this case. Looking at the evidence, testimony showed that Tyson had no power to hire, fire, or pay the farm manager. The evidence showed that the farm owner asked the farm manager to stay on after purchasing the farm and negotiated pay with the farm manager. Further, the farm owner provided the paycheck, not Tyson. Tyson did nothing to establish the farm manager’s work hours, and the contract with Tyson did not require a particular person to live on the farm. Under the terms of the farm owner’s contract with Tyson, the farm owner provided the labor, and Tyson provided the chickens, feed, medication, and technical assistance.
The court agreed with Tyson’s argument that the circuit court correctly decided to submit the question of the employer-employee relationship to a jury to determine, and the Court of Special Appeals had been wrong in reversing that jury verdict.
The court’s reversal of the lower court decision here takes away some of the uncertainty that I discussed in the prior ruling. The Court of Special Appeals’ earlier decision had left many unanswered questions on who might all be considered joint employees of a poultry company in this situation. Could the farm owner be considered in the right circumstances? This decision seems to put many of those concerns to rest. In a similar case, this is a question of an employer-employee relationship for a jury to determine based on trial evidence.
The Court of Appeals does stress, as Tyson did at oral arguments before the court, that circumstances could vary from farm-to-farm and there could be a situation where a poultry farm worker could become a joint employee of both the poultry company and the poultry farm owner. That again would be a question for a jury to decide based on the evidence presented. The court did not announce a blanket rule with this ruling but left the door open to a situation presenting itself which could create a joint employment relationship.
Tyson Farms, Inc. v. Uninsured Employers' Fund, No. 5, Sept. Term, 2020, 2020 WL 6815883 (Md. Nov. 20, 2020).