• Key point 8-02. All states have enacted workers compensation laws to provide benefits to employees who are injured or become ill in the course of their employment. Benefits generally are financed through insurance premiums paid by employers. Churches are subject to workers compensation laws in most states.
* A Washington appeals court ruled that a church could recover its attorneys fees from an employee who filed a frivolous lawsuit against it following a work-related injury. A woman (“Julie”) applied for a job as an aide at church-operated preschool. During her interview, Julie was told that the preschool was a ministry of the church. She participated in an employee orientation after she was hired, and was given numerous documents, including the Staff Member Handbook. The handbook states that the preschool is organized and operated by the church. Julie received multiple paychecks for her work. Each check was drawn by the church. Julie was later injured while working. She filed a worker’s compensation claim, and also sued the church for damages resulting from her injury. The church advised Julie that it was going to ask the court to dismiss the case, and that it would seek a recovery of its legal fees under the frivolous claim statute if she did not immediately dismiss the suit. Julie refused to dismiss her lawsuit, and the trial court granted the church’s motion to dismiss. The court also concluded that the lawsuit was frivolous, and ordered Julie to pay the church’s legal fees. A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s order dismissing the case. It noted that the state “frivolous claim” law defined a claim as frivolous when “cannot be supported by any rational argument on the law or facts.” The court concluded that Julie’s case met this standard. Her only defense was that she mistakenly believed that the preschool, and not the church, was her employer and therefore her lawsuit was not precluded by the exemption of churches from the state workers compensation law. The court rejected this argument on the basis of the various documents Julie had been provided at the time she was hired that clearly identified the church as her employer. Balassa v. Pines Baptist Church, 2002 WL 398499 (Wash. App. 2002).
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