Fourth Circuit Rules in Favor of Insurer That Refused to Defend Inmate

Fourth Circuit Rules in Favor of Insurer That Refused to Defend Inmate
Finds Inmate Is Not Covered as a “Volunteer Worker”

On January 20, 2012, in an unpublished opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of an insurer that refused to defend an inmate in a lawsuit over a West Virginia jail worker’s injuries, reversing a decision by the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

In National Union Fire Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa. v. Lambert, Hale, the plaintiff in the underlying suit, sought damages for injuries she allegedly sustained as a jail worker when an inmate working alongside her in the jail kitchen allegedly caused a mixer to fall and land on Hale’s foot. Notified of Hale’s suit, National Union filed a declaratory judgment seeking a declaration that it had no duty to defend or indemnify the inmate, Lambert, with regard to the underlying action. Specifically, National Union argued Lambert did not constitute an “insured” under the terms of the policy, which defined “persons insured” as follows:
(A) The “Named Insured” [i.e., the State of West Virginia],
(B) Any elected or appointed official, executive officer, commissioner, director, or member of the “Named Insured” while acting within the scope of his duties as such,
(C) Any faculty member, employee, volunteer worker or student teacher of the “Named Insured” while acting within the scope of their duties as such.
(Emphasis added). In response, Hale asked the court to declare that Lambert was an insured “volunteer worker” under the policy and therefore entitled to a defense and indemnification. Lambert independently sought an identical declaration. National Union and Hale filed competing motions for summary judgment. The district court sided with Hale, finding that Lambert qualified as a volunteer worker under the policy. National Union appealed.
The Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court, stating it was “convinced that Lambert, a prison inmate, cannot possibly meet the definition of ‘volunteer worker’ as found in the policy…” Finding the term “volunteer worker” is unambiguous, the court considered the appropriate contours of its meaning, holding that “absence of coercion is the thread uniting the disparate definitions of ‘volunteer’”:
We first look to the “common and customary meaning,” Boggs v. Camden-Clark Mem’l Hosp. Corp., 693 S.E.2d 53, 58 (W. Va. 2010), of “volunteer.” Freedom from coercion and absence of legal obligation compose the bedrock of definitions of “volunteer.” For instance, Black’s Law Dictionary defines “volunteer” as “[a] voluntary actor,” one who acts “[u]nconstrained by interference . . . [or] outside influence” and has no legal obligation. Black’s Law Dictionary 1711 (9th ed. 2009). Webster’s defines “volunteer” as “a person whose actions are not founded on any legal obligation so to act” and who acts “by free choice[,] . . . without compulsion or obligation.” Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary 2131 (2d ed. 2001). And in the federal statutory context, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) considers as volunteers only those individuals whose “services are offered freely and without pressure or coercion, direct or implied.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.101(c).
Thus, the court reasoned, to be considered a “volunteer worker,” Lambert must have elected to work of his own volition.
Noting Hale and Lambert’s argument “obscure[d] the broader portrait of institutional confinement, which is hallmarked by the Jail’s coercive authority over inmates like Lambert”, the court looked to West Virginia statutes and the nature of Lambert’s confinement to determine whether Lambert’s work in the jail kitchen was volitional:
A close look at West Virginia statutes and the nature of Lambert’s confinement reveals that his work in the kitchen was anything but voluntary. As an initial matter, Lambert conceded that he was obligated to work at the Jail in some capacity. The Jail’s policy is wholly consistent with West Virginia law, which requires inmates to participate in jail work assignments, W. Va. Code R. § 95-1-21.3. Because Lambert was compelled to work at the Jail, he cannot be considered a “volunteer worker” under the Policy.
The nature of incarceration and the jail-inmate relationship further underscores that Lambert is by no means a “volunteer worker.” We have emphasized that, “[b]ecause . . . inmates are involuntarily incarcerated, the [jail] wields virtually absolute control over them to a degree simply not found in the free labor situation of true employment.” Harker v. State Use Indus., 990 F.2d 131, 133 (4th Cir. 1993); accord Vanskike v. Peters, 974 F.2d 806, 810 (7th Cir. 1992) (“[T]here is too much control to classify the [jail-inmate] relationship as one of employment.”). Because a volunteer generally enjoys more freedom than an employee and courts uniformly hold that a jail’s absolute authority over an inmate precludes a finding that an inmate is an employee, we have little trouble concluding that an inmate is not a “volunteer worker.” Indeed, Lambert’s thwarted protest provides a case study in the coercive authority of jails. Whereas a volunteer worker under the ordinary meaning of the term would have been free to leave his shift at his discretion without suffering a concrete penalty, Lambert was put in “the hole” for five days when he refused to finish his kitchen shift. At bottom, the Jail’s “virtually absolute control” over Lambert, Harker, 990 F.2d at 133, which renders Lambert’s status as a worker something approximating involuntary servitude, Vanskike, 974 F.2d at 809, yields an impossible fit between his role and the definition of “volunteer worker.”
That Lambert succeeded in his efforts to obtain a work assignment in the kitchen does not undermine his exclusion from Policy coverage. To be sure, Lambert submitted an application to work in the kitchen out of a desire “[t]o eat extra food and to get out of [his] cell.” J.A. 118. But his ability to express an assignment preference does not convert the overarching obligation to work from required to optional. See Burleson v. California, 83 F.3d 311, 314 (9th Cir. 1996) (“[P]laintiffs mistakenly equate the ability to choose between various work programs offered by the [jail], with the freedom to ‘sell’ their labor.”). Had Lambert failed to submit an application or had the Jail denied his request to serve in the kitchen, he still would have been forced to work in some capacity. Nor does Lambert’s choice to apply for a job in the kitchen alter the Jail’s broader coercive authority and “virtually absolute control” over him, see Harker, 990 F.2d at 133, factors that we find make Lambert anything but a “volunteer worker.”
Accordingly, the court rejected Hale and Lambert’s argument and found that the common and customary meaning of “volunteer worker” foreclosed Lambert’s classification as an “insured” under the policy.
For those who are interested in whether the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning would apply to a similar case in South Carolina, it is interesting to note that South Carolina has a statute similar to the West Virginia regulation the court examined in coming to its decision in Lambert. Compare W. Va. Code R. § 95-1-21.3 (“Inmate option to refuse. Inmates may refuse to participate in jail facility programs, except work assignments and programs required by statute or court order. There shall be written documentation of each refusal to participate maintained in the inmate’s file.”), with S.C. Code Ann. § 17-25-70 (“Notwithstanding another provision of law, a local governing body may authorize the sheriff or other official in charge of a local correctional facility to require any able-bodied convicted person committed to the facility to perform labor in the public interest. …”). Considering the South Carolina statute together with the nature of institutional confinement as outlined by the Lambert court, it is likely that a South Carolina court’s decision regarding a similar case would be in line with the Fourth Circuit’s opinion in Lambert.
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