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The WCAB found that Stewart Espinoza, while an inmate of the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail, was not an employee of the County of Los Angeles at the time that he was injured while working as a cook in the jail, and that he was therefore not eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Espinoza filed a petition for review which the Court of Appeal denied on May 17, 2012. The Supreme Court granted Espinoza’s petition for review on and transferred the matter back to the Court of Appeal with directions to vacate the order denying the petition for a writ of review. The Court of Appeal issued a writ of review pursuant to the Supreme Court’s direction and affirmed the WCAB denial of benefits in the unpublished opinion of Stewart Espinoza v WCAB and Los Angeles County Jail.

Espinoza and the County stipulated that Espinoza was working as a cook in the county jail on November 1, 2005 when he sustained an injury to his left shoulder. The parties also stipulated that if Espinoza was found to be County’s employee, the injury arose in the course and scope of employment. Thus, the only issue in the case is whether Espinoza was County’s employee. Whether Espinoza was County’s employee depends in this case on whether he performed the work he was doing voluntarily or whether he was required to work as a condition of his incarceration.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors issued an order in 1970 referred to as Order #91, which provides that persons confined in the county jail may be compelled to perform labor under the direction of a county official. Order #91 goes on to state that “[n]o prisoner engaged in labor pursuant to this order shall be considered as an employee of, or to be employed by the County or any department thereof, nor shall any such prisoner come within any of the provisions of the Workmen’s Compensation Insurance and Safety Act of 1917 . . . .” Order #91 was enacted by the Board of Supervisors in response to the decision in State Compensation Ins. Fund v. Workmen’s Comp. App. Bd. (1970) 8 Cal.App.3d 978 (Childs). Childs was a case in which David Childs, then an inmate in the Los Angeles County Jail, was working on a road project in Malibu in November 1966 when he was injured.

Espinoza did not testify. Instead, there was an offer of proof that the WCJ rendered as follows: “He [Espinoza] thought his work was voluntary, and was never told his work was mandated by the terms of his incarceration. He received preferential treatment in exchange for the work.”

The WCJ reasoned that Order #91 only provides that a jail inmate “may” be compelled to work, not that the inmates “shall” be compelled to work. The WCJ went on to conclude that there was no evidence that Espinoza was compelled to work. “He [Espinoza] did the work in order to receive some extra benefits while in jail. Nothing indicates the terms of his sentence required him to work in the kitchen.”

The WCAB disagreed. Noting that it was Childs that spawned Order #91, the WCAB pointed out that similar ordinances have been held to exclude county jail inmates from workers’ compensation coverage. The WCAB cited as an example the Tulare county ordinance in Parsons v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (1981) 126 Cal.App.3d 629 (Parsons). The WCAB’s conclusion was that an inmate’s work “is not voluntary if it is performed subject to a County ordinance that requires an inmate to work while incarcerated.”

The Court of Appeal concluded that “Given that Order #91 precludes the establishment of an employment relationship, it is not necessary to address the question whether Espinoza volunteered to work. We note, however, the manifest difficulties that would be encountered if Order #91 did not exist. With an inmate population the size of the County’s jail system, the problems of proving whether the County entered into an employment relationship with a given inmate would be practically insurmountable. It would also lead to the highly undesirable result of leaving some inmates in the workers’ compensation system and some outside of it, leaving the public agency with a completely unpredictable financial exposure. ”