Legal Corner

ADA
EEOC settles first direct challenge to employer wellness program

The EEOC’s first lawsuit directly challenging an employer’s wellness program-filed in 2014- was against Orion Energy Systems. The company had switched to a self-insured plan and, to save costs, initiated a wellness plan that revolved around three incentives: the employee did not smoke, would exercise 16 times a month, and have a health risk assessment (HRA). There were surcharges for non-compliance, including paying the entire monthly premium if they did not have a HRA, which was $413.43 for single, $744.16 for limited family, and $1,130.83 for family coverage.

One employee raised concerns about the wellness initiative and HRA, questioning confidentiality and how the premium was calculated believing it excessive in light of the service fee Orion paid its third-party administrator (she knew the amount because she paid invoices). She opted out of the program and agreed to pay the premium. However, her supervisor and the HR director spoke to her about comments she made to coworkers about the premium, telling her such negativity was not welcome, and to keep her opinions to herself and eventually she was terminated.

While the court found that Orion’s wellness plan was lawful under the regulations at the time, there were issues of fact as to whether the employee was fired because of her opposition to the wellness plan. Under the consent decree settling the suit, Orion agreed to pay $100,000 to the employee and agreed that it won’t maintain any wellness program in the future that poses disability-related inquiries or seeks a medical examination that is not voluntary within the meaning of the ADA and its regulations as well as other provisions.

FMLA
Inadvisable email negates defense to FMLA retaliation claim

An employee at Wells Fargo received an informal and then a formal warning about underperformance and her failure to meet sales goals. One week prior to receiving the formal warning, she was diagnosed with myelopathy, scheduled for surgery, and received FMLA leave. When she returned to work on limited duty, her supervisor warned her that she was still near termination. After her return to full duty, her supervisor determined she had not made sufficient improvement and he documented the problems in an email to the HR department and recommended termination. In this email, he also noted, “Debby submits a request for a leave of absence.”

The employee sued for retaliatory discharge under the FMLA and the federal court found that the email comment about the request for a leave of absence as part of the email justifying discharge was direct evidence of unlawful retaliation. Although Wells Fargo could document the underperformance and warnings, the court concluded for summary judgment motions in cases involving direct evidence of discrimination, an employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory business reason for an adverse employment action is irrelevant.

Takeaway: Electronic communications have permanency. Be sure supervisors and managers understand the importance of their choice of words and know what should and should not be included in recommendations for termination.

Temporary work counts as a factor when determining FMLA eligibility

In Meky v. Jetson Specialty Mktg. Servs. Inc., a temporary employee was hired through a staffing agency for about six months and then was hired to work full-time. She requested FMLA, but was told she was not eligible and was terminated a few months later for leaving work early. She sued and one question the court had to decide was the start date of her employment. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the correct date was the date on which she started working as a temporary employee, since the staffing agency and the Jetson were joint employers.

Workers’ Compensation
Finding of compensable injuries to knee and shoulder does not bar later additional claim related to back – California

In Iniguez v. WCAB (Blue Rose Concrete Contractors), a worker was compensated in 2012 for injuries to his knee and shoulder stemming from an accident in 2010. In November 2014, he filed another claim seeking additional benefits for injuries to the neck and back. The WCAB found that compensation should be limited to the knee and shoulder in accordance with the 2012 litigation, but the 2nd District Court of Appeals annulled the board’s decision by saying there was no finding that these were the only industrial injuries sustained and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Vacation and sick time not earned income when calculating impairment benefits – Florida

In Eckert v. Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the employer reduced the injured worker’s benefits by 50% for the 23 weeks he used his sick leave and vacation time, arguing that this was allowed as “earned income” under state law. However, the 1st District Court of Appeal said use of sick leave and vacation time could not count toward his average weekly pay for the 23 weeks in question, since sick leave and vacation time were not accrued during the weeks that he drew upon so it was not “earned income.”

“Heart attack waiting to happen” leads to denial of claim – Illinois

A firefighter described, as “a heart attack waiting to happen” should not receive benefits for a heart attack sustained while cleaning his firehouse parking spot of snow ruled an appellate court. The firefighter was a heavy smoker, obese, and had so many risk factors for a heart attack that the cardiac event could have occurred “anytime and anywhere,” said the arbitrator. Those risk factors were enough to overcome the statutory presumption that heart attacks suffered by firefighters are a compensable injury.

Fired for misconduct, employee can still collect benefits – Indiana

In Masterbrand Cabinets v. Waid, a worker who injured his back disagreed with his doctor and supervisor about his level of pain and work capacity. An incident with the supervisor escalated to an altercation. He was suspended and then terminated. He continued to see the doctor and the Workers’ Compensation Board found he was unable to perform work of the same kind he was performing when injured and that he was due TTD payments. The company appealed, arguing the worker was not entitled to TTD benefits because he was terminated for misconduct. However, the Court held that the inability to work was related to his injury and, therefore, he was entitled to benefits.

Statute of limitations not valid defense when injured employee was promised action – Mississippi

An employer and its carrier cannot argue the statute of limitations as a defense when the carrier had assured the injured employee that it would “take care of everything” and there was no need for her to hire an attorney. Moreover, the carrier had paid for medical expenses three days after the expiration. Dietz v. South Miss. Reg’l Ctr.

Long history of medical problems does not preclude PTD for shoulder injury – Missouri

In Maryville R-II School District v. Payton, a school groundskeeper with a history of ailments and multiple surgeries went to the emergency room when he started to have serious shoulder pain after assembling a soccer goal. An X-ray did not reveal any acute fracture or dislocation, and an emergency room doctor tentatively diagnosed him with osteoarthritis. He then saw the school district’s physician who opined that the activity was unlikely to be the prevailing cause of the pain. He then sought treatment from his own physician and an MRI revealed a rotator cuff tear. Surgery was performed but the rotator cuff tore again and he was unable to return to work because the school district could not accommodate his lifting restrictions.

A judge, the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, and the Court of Appeals all concurred that the injury was permanent and totally disabling.

Tort suit for worker’s heat-related death revived – Missouri

In Channel v. Cintas Corp., a 52-year-old delivery driver died of heat stroke and his widow filed a wrongful death action against the supervisor and the company. She argued that the supervisor ignored the company’s heat safety protocols by placing her husband in a truck without air conditioning on a day when temperatures were over 100 degrees. While a circuit judge ruled that workers’ comp was the only remedy, the Court of Appeals ruled that the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission had not yet ruled on the workers’ comp case and it was improper for the judge to determine that the death was an accident. The suit was reinstated and placed on hold.

Symptoms of heart attack at work not sufficient for death benefits – New York

In the Matter of Bordonaro v Genesee County Sheriff’s Office, a deputy sheriff died at home in his sleep and his widow sought workers’ comp death benefits, contending his initial symptoms occurred at work. Noting the employee had completed his shift and had not sought medical treatment, the appellate court supported the Board’s finding that the death was not casually connected to work.

Benefits denied in two stress related cases – New York

In Matter of Novak v St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hosp., a New York appellate court affirmed a Board finding that a nurse’s work-related stress did not exceed what could be expected in her normal work environment. It was determined that her stress stemmed from her involvement in a disciplinary proceeding, wrongful termination, and subsequent reinstatement after a six-month suspension. She complained about her treatment by co-workers when she returned to work, eventually quit her job, and filed a comp claim asserting the events caused insomnia, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and a severe social phobia. The claim was disallowed and the appellate court noted claims for mental injuries based on work-related stress are precluded “if such mental injury is a direct consequence of a lawful personnel decision involving a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, demotion or termination taken in good faith by the employer.”

In Burke v. New York City Transit Authority, a subway train operator was denied a psyche claim for harassment from his supervisors. The employee wears glasses, has a sensitivity to light, and has tinted lenses he can flip down over his glasses. Train operators are prohibited from wearing sunglasses for safety reasons, and the employee was being monitored to ensure that he was not wearing his tinted lenses while operating a train. He claimed his supervisors harassed and intimidated him about the lenses, causing him to develop disabling anxiety and panic attacks. The courts determined that the stress created by the investigation was not greater than that which other similarly situated workers experienced in normal work and, therefore, it was not compensable.

Benefits granted for ‘reasonable effort’ for employment – North Carolina

For a worker to receive benefits in the state, it must be shown that the worker was not capable of earning the same money as before the injury due to the injury. In Snyder v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., a tire builder suffered a back injury and returned to work with lifting restrictions. However, the employer was not able to accommodate the restrictions and sent him home. He filed for workers’ comp and the commission found that he met the burden for temporary total disability by proving he could not return to his pre-injury job and had made unsuccessful attempts to obtain employment.

While the company appealed, arguing that the employee had not made reasonable efforts for employment, the appeals court disagreed. The court did note that an employer’s failure to provide light duty work in and of itself is not proof that an injured employee made a reasonable but unsuccessful effort to find employment.

Decision in Heart and Lung claim not binding on workers’ comp – Pennsylvania

A prison guard trainee hurt his knee and filed for benefits under the Heart and Lung Act (H & L Act), which allows certain police officers and other public safety employees to collect full salary and medical benefits for temporary injuries. An arbitrator determined he was eligible for benefits. He later filed a claim for workers’ comp, but the judge found he was entitled to medical benefits, but not disability benefits because he failed to prove a loss of wages.

The guard appealed arguing his disability was established under the H & L Act, but the court noted the laws were quite different and the Workers’ Comp Act could provide significantly greater medical and indemnity benefits, including those for permanent impairment. Therefore, a decision by an arbitrator in an H & L claim filed by a corrections officer was not binding on the workers’ compensation judge. Merrell v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd. Commonwealth Dep’t of Corr.

Non-payment of PT benefits leads to penalties in spite of billing dispute – Pennsylvania

An employee of Derry Township Supervisors received PT for a back and neck injury at a facility owned by The pt Group. The bills, however, came from the Physical Therapy Institute (PTI), which had a contractual arrangement with The pt Group. The Derry Township argued this arrangement was a way to charge higher fees.

As of Jan. 1, 1995, providers are able to bill comp carriers at 113% of the rate established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services fee schedule, but the Supervisors alleged that providers in business before that date can use a “cost-plus” formula that generally means a higher payment. The pt Group was subject to the 113% cap, but PTI was not.

The Commonwealth Court upheld lower court decisions that there was nothing illegal in this arrangement and ordered an award of $83,400 in attorney fees, and reimbursement of $3,328.32 for litigation costs.

Opioid overdose after injury not compensable – Tennessee

A carpenter was involved in an employment-related motor vehicle accident that caused fractures to the vertebrae in his neck and disc herniation in his lower back. He underwent surgery, but continued to have back pain and further surgeries were denied, as were epidural steroid injections. He was referred to a pain management clinic and restricted from returning to work.

He told the pain management specialist that he began taking extra opioid tablets and consumed alcohol because he felt the medications were no longer effective. Shortly after agreeing to a program to wean off the drugs, his wife found him unresponsive in bed. The medical examiner ruled his death an accident caused by acute oxycodone toxicity with contributory causes of hypertension and alcohol and tobacco use.

His wife filed with workers’ comp benefits and the case went through appeals and ultimately was heard by the state Supreme Court. In Judy Kilburn vs. Granite State Insurance Company, et al., the Supreme Court noted that a worker’s conduct can limit compensability of subsequent injuries that are a direct and natural result of a compensable primary injury and ruled his death not compensable because he failed to take his medications in compliance with physician’s orders.

Disagreement over diagnosis not sufficient to rebut correctness of impairment rating – Tennessee

In Williams v. Ajax Turner Co., an employee was assigned a 21.3% impairment rating from his doctor following surgery of his foot after a forklift accident. The employer requested a second opinion from an orthopedic surgeon who assigned a 5% impairment rating, and a third opinion through the medical impairment registry (MIR) program, which also resulted in a 5% rating. A trial judge accepted the treating doctor’s rating and applied a multiplier of 4.

The Supreme Court’s Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel said an MIR physician’s rating is presumed to be accurate, unless this can be overcome by clear and convincing evidence giving rise to a “serious and substantial doubt” about the accuracy of the rating. A disagreement about the rating, however, is not clear and convincing evidence; therefore, the MIR rating should have been accepted. It also agreed to the multiplier of 4, given considerations of education, job skills, work history, and medical limitations so the award of permanent disability benefits had to be modified to 20%.

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