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Burley v. U.S. Foods, Inc.

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

April 1, 2014

VINCENT BURLEY, Employee, Plaintiff,

Heard in the Court of Appeals December 12, 2013.

The Sumwalt Law Firm, by Vernon Sumwalt, Mark T. Sumwalt, and Lauren Hester, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

McAngus, Goudelock & Courie, P.L.L.C., by Raymond J. Williams, III, for Defendants-Appellees.

Robert N. HUNTER, JR., Judge. Judge STROUD concurs. Judge DILLON dissents in a separate opinion.


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Robert N. HUNTER, JR., Judge.

Appeal by plaintiff from opinion and award entered 28 June 2013 by the North Carolina Industrial Commission. Heard in the Court of Appeals 12 December 2013.

Vincent Burley (" Plaintiff" ) appeals from the 28 June 2013 opinion and award of the Full Commission of the North Carolina Industrial Commission (the " Commission" ), which concluded that the Commission did not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear Plaintiff's claim. Plaintiff argues the Commission had subject matter jurisdiction because a modification to his contract was approved by defendant U.S. Foods Inc. (" U.S. Foods" ) in Charlotte. We agree and reverse the Commission's opinion and award.

I. Facts & Procedural History

On 8 July 2011, Plaintiff filed a claim for benefits with the Commission seeking compensation for a back injury suffered while working for U.S. Foods as a truck driver. U.S. Foods denied that North Carolina has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claim, but admitted liability under the Georgia Workers' Compensation Act and is currently paying Plaintiff disability compensation under Georgia law. The matter came on for a hearing before Deputy Commissioner Philip A. Baddour, III (" Dep. Comm. Baddour" ) on 17 April 2012 and a written order was filed on 13 December 2012. The evidence presented at the hearing tended to show the following facts.

Plaintiff is a resident of Augusta, Georgia and was a 39-year-old truck driver at the time of his 13 December 2012 hearing before the Commission. In 1993, Plaintiff graduated from truck driving school in Charleston, South Carolina, and obtained his commercial driving license from this course of study. Plaintiff has been a truck driver since graduating from this program.

U.S. Foods supplies and delivers food to restaurants, schools, sports venues, hotels, and many other types of businesses. U.S. Foods operates many distribution centers nationwide to supply " hundreds of thousands of customers" with its food products.

Plaintiff testified that U.S. Foods hired him as a delivery truck driver in May 2000. Plaintiff completed his initial hiring paperwork, including a driver's application, medical exam, and written driving exam, in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Plaintiff completed additional pre-hiring paperwork, including a road-test in Columbia, South Carolina and a drug-screening in Georgia. After completing his initial paperwork, U.S. Foods offered Plaintiff employment, and Plaintiff accepted the written offer. Plaintiff signed this paperwork in Fort Mill, South Carolina and was employed at-will.

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Plaintiff drove a planned route as part of his employment. The route was concentrated around the Augusta area, with stops in Georgia and South Carolina. Plaintiff's truck and trailer were stowed every day at a drop yard in Augusta. Plaintiff's route did not involve travel in North Carolina nor was his truck ever dropped in North Carolina.

U.S. Foods merged with another company, PYA Monarch, and the Columbia drop yard, where Plaintiff was assigned, was dissolved in 2002. Plaintiff testified that U.S. Foods offered to transfer supervision of his employment to either their Charlotte division or their Lexington, South Carolina division after the merger. Plaintiff chose to work for the Charlotte division because U.S. Foods arranged for his loaded delivery truck to be delivered near his Augusta home. Had Plaintiff chosen the Lexington division, he would have been required to drive his personal vehicle to retrieve his loaded truck in Lexington. Plaintiff's transfer to the Charlotte division was thereafter approved by U.S. Foods's human resources department in Charlotte.

Plaintiff's job title and responsibilities did not change after he was transferred to the Charlotte division from the Columbia division. Plaintiff stated that he was working the " same job, just a different division," although Plaintiff made deliveries to different customers and drove a different route. Plaintiff was also switched from an hourly weight-based pay system to a component pay system. As a result, Plaintiff saw his pay increase from $400 to $500 a week under the weight-based system to between $900 and $1,400 per week under the component system. Plaintiff worked continuously for U.S. Foods for nine years, was never terminated or laid off, and never completed re-hiring paperwork during this period.

Plaintiff injured his back on 23 September 2009 while lifting a case of liquid milk during a delivery to a Sonic Drive-In in Evans, Georgia. U.S. Foods terminated Plaintiff's employment on 1 October 2009.

U.S. Foods's Charlotte division Transportation Manager Alton Abernathy (" Mr. Abernathy" ) also testified at the 17 April 2012 hearing. Mr. Abernathy stated that upon the merger of U.S. Foods and PYA Monarch, U.S. Foods " went to all the drivers [in the Columbia drop yard] that were being displaced . . . and offered them jobs" if they transferred branches. If Plaintiff rejected the transfer, he would have received a severance package. Mr. Abernathy further described the different pay systems between the Charlotte and Columbia divisions: Plaintiff's component pay system paid his commission on " pieces and stops and miles with a base and safety pay" rather than Plaintiff's prior pay system, which was based on weight carried. Mr. Abernathy also described the Charlotte division's accommodations for its drivers, noting that the branch delivered drivers' loads to fifteen different sites, including Plaintiff's drop site in Augusta.

Plaintiff's transfer was approved and signed by three individuals: Doug Jolly, U.S. Foods's Transportation Manager at its Fort Mill division; Kim Dahl, a human resources officer at U.S. Foods; and Mel Smith, who provided final approval from the human resources department. U.S. Food's human resources department has been located in Charlotte since 4 December 2000, and both Kim Dahl and Mel Smith worked in the Charlotte office.

Lastly, U.S. Foods's Human Resources Coordinator, Rebecca Reed (" Ms. Reed" ), testified at the hearing. Ms. Reed discussed the terms of Plaintiff's initial hiring contract, noting that U.S. Foods could modify the terms of Plaintiff's employment under the contract.

After hearing the foregoing evidence, Dep. Comm. Baddour concluded that the a modified contract does not constitute a contract " made" in North Carolina for purposes of the relevant jurisdiction granting statute, N.C. Gen. Stat. ยง 97-36 (2013). Dep. Comm. Baddour also concluded that the final act to create Plaintiff's employment contract did not occur in North Carolina. Accordingly, Dep. Comm. Baddour ordered that Plaintiff's claim be denied for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Plaintiff appealed to the ...

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