Legal Corner

FMLA
Company properly terminated teller using intermittent FMLA leave

In Walker v. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank N.A., the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled that a bank teller who received intermittent leave for hypertension and requested removal of the notary duties of her job did not show Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) retaliation or interference in her firing. On her intermittent leave, she was permitted to come in late, leave early, or miss a day when she was not feeling well and acknowledged that she was never denied FMLA leave approval. She did not request an ADA accommodation.

While she was working she received low or unsatisfactory job performance reviews, warnings for overall unsatisfactory performance, including poor customer relationships and failure to follow procedures to protect confidentiality. She was fired approximately two years after she requested intermittent leave and filed suit.

The court found that she was terminated because of her performance failings, not because she took intermittent leave. The company had properly continued to enforce its progressive disciplinary policy during the period of intermittent leave.


Medical Marijuana
Medical marijuana user can sue employer that rescinded job offer based on pre-employment drug test – Connecticut

In Katelin Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Company L.L.C., doing business as Bride Brook Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, a recreational therapist who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder was prescribed a capsule form of medicinal cannabis in 2015, which she ingests every evening to help her sleep. Prior to her pre-employment drug test, she informed her future employer that she took medical marijuana. One day before she was to start her new job, after she had quit her former employment, the rehabilitation center rescinded her job offer over a positive drug test.

The company argued that federal law, which bans the use of marijuana, preempts Connecticut law that prohibits employers from firing or refusing to hire someone who uses marijuana for medicinal purposes. The court disagreed and found the employee can sue the employer.


Workers’ Compensation
Exclusive remedy protects general and special employer – California

The family of a Fresno paramedic who was killed in an air ambulance helicopter crash filed a wrongful death suit against Rogers Helicopters and American Airborne, claiming they were negligent in the maintenance and operation of the helicopter. A general partnership, ROAM dba SkyLife, existed between the companies, and the helicopters used in this partnership were jointly owned.

If there are dual employers, the second or “special” employer may enjoy the same protection of “exclusive remedy” under workers’ comp as the first or “general” employer. The court found the death occurred during the course and scope of employment, therefore, the family is precluded from suing the companies.


Work comp exclusivity rule does not preempt claim for emotional distress under FEHA – California

In conflict with an earlier decision from Division Three, the Court of Appeal, 4th District, has affirmed that the workers’ compensation exclusivity rule does not preempt employees’ emotional distress claims arising from discrimination or retaliation in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The case, Melony Light vs. California Department of Parks and Recreation, et al., revolved around a co-worker who alleged harassment by supervisors for support of a co-worker who took medical leave for stress arising from harassment by supervisors. The court noted that exclusive remedy provisions are not applicable under various circumstances, including from a risk not reasonably encompassed within the compensation bargain.


Employer may be liable for costs up until denial of claim – Florida

In Mathis v. Broward County School Board, a custodian, who is diabetic and had an abscess on her foot, reported a puncture injury to her foot. When the abscess worsened, she went to the hospital and was operated on for a staph infection.

When the school board denied the claim, the employee appealed, not questioning the denial of compensability but arguing the board was obligated to pay the $116,000 bill from the hospital, which was incurred before the claim was denied. The 1st District Court of Appeal overturned a judge’s finding that the employer wasn’t liable, noting if an employer elects to pay and investigate, then the law requires that it pay all benefits due “as if the claim had been accepted as compensable” until the date of denial. The case was remanded to consider the board’s defenses and if this constituted emergency care.


Comp sole remedy for alleged victim of sexual harassment – Illinois

In Nischan v. Stratosphere Quality, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that workers’ compensation was the sole remedy for a worker’s claim of battery by a corporate representative of a client, but that she had asserted a viable claim against her employer for failing to protect her from the corporate representative’s allegedly harassing conduct.

The Chrysler Group was one of Stratosphere’s biggest clients, and she alleged that Chrysler’s liaison sexually harassed her. The court said the Workers’ Compensation Act barred the claim of battery, since the act is the exclusive remedy for accidental injuries transpiring in the workplace. “Injuries resulting from a coworker’s intentional tort are accidental from the employer’s perspective unless the employer commanded or expressly authorized the tort.”


Use of indefinite article in settlement agreement leads to award of benefits – Indiana

In Evansville Courier Company v. Mary Beth Uziekalla, an injured worker settled a workers’ compensation claim for a neck injury. The settlement agreement allowed a claim for change of condition, at which point she could seek a medical opinion from the independent medical examiner.

When she exercised the provision, the designated doctor declined to give a medical opinion, so the parties agreed on a neurosurgeon, who determined that the change in condition did not result from her work injury. However, the original neurosurgeon, who also examined her, came to the opposite conclusion. The appellate court rejected the argument that the board erred in admitting the second opinion since the use of the phrase “‘a’ procedure for resolving future change of condition claims,” does not mean the agreement established the only such procedure. Indeed, the use of the indefinite article contemplates the contrary.


Longshoreman can pursue both WC and LHWCA benefits – Minnesota

Unless states have laws on the books indicating otherwise, injured longshoremen may seek benefits under both workers’ comp and the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. In Ansello v. Wisconsin Central Ltd., the state Supreme Court ruled that a workers’ compensation judge abused his discretion when he dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.

In a dual-jurisdiction case, benefits in both jurisdictions can be pursued, but can’t be collected at the same time. The Longshore Act is more generous than the state’s workers’ compensation and typically would be accessed for wage loss and any residual benefits not paid under the state’s system. The court noted there is no danger of double recovery under concurrent jurisdiction, since employer’s awards under one are credited against any recovery under the second.


Failure to administer drug and alcohol testing in timely manner to injured worker nixes denial of benefits – Mississippi

In McCall v. Sanderson Farms, an appellate court held that an injured worker should not have been denied workers’ compensation benefits because he failed to submit to a post-accident breathalyzer test. The injured worker waited for the breathalyzer technician to arrive at the employer’s premises for more than an hour and one-half following the incident, but pain forced him to leave and seek care at the hospital, where he passed a drug test but was not administered a blood alcohol test. According to the court, the employee had not denied the test.


Drug sentence insufficient to prove worker earned money from dealing drugs – New York

Under Work Comp. Law § 114-a, if a person makes a false statement or representation as to a material fact he or she shall be disqualified from receiving any compensation directly attributable to such false statement or representation. In Pompeo v. Auction Direct USA LP, an injured worker who went to prison on drug-dealing charges would have lost his chance to resume collecting wage-replacement benefits after his release if his employer could prove he hid the drug-sale proceeds. However, the Board was within its powers to find that the criminal convictions alone were insufficient to establish that income had been received from the drug sales.


Widow gets death benefits for unwitnessed fall – New York

In Silvestri v. New York City Transit Authority, an appellate court ruled that a worker’s widow was entitled to benefits for his death from injuries caused by an unwitnessed fall at work that was never reported to his employer. He left prior to the start of the second overtime shift and witnesses said he was holding his stomach when he left, and that he had said he wasn’t feeling well.

His maintenance duties sometimes required him to repair subway cars while they were suspended over a pit that was 4 to 5 feet deep with a concrete floor, through the use of a ladder and he told his wife he had fallen off a ladder into “the pit” at work earlier that day. When he was having difficulty breathing and walking, he went to the hospital and was diagnosed with fractured ribs, was given painkillers and sent home. Three days later he was diagnosed with a ruptured spleen, as well as a punctured lung, and died in the hospital a day later.

While the presumption of compensability could not be used to establish that an accident actually occurred, the widow had established her claim without it.


Calculation of AWW must account for changes in wages, hours – North Carolina

In Ball v. Bayada Home Health Care, the Court of Appeals overturned the calculation of a worker’s average weekly wage that did not account for the fact that she switched from part-time to full-time employment, and that she worked more than three months after her injury at a higher rate of pay. After six months of part-time work, a nurse’s assistant took a full time position and was pushed down the stairs by a patient on her first day.

The statute sets forth five different methods for calculating a worker’s AWW and the Industrial Commission used the method for when less than 52 weeks is worked. This method sets the AWW as the sum of the worker’s earnings divided by the number of weeks actually worked, if this results in an amount that is “fair and just to both parties.” The court found that this method was unfair to the worker and set the AWW as the amount that “will most nearly approximate the amount which the injured employee would be earning were it not for the injury.”


Entire impairment rating evaluation process unconstitutional – Pennsylvania

The recent decision of the state’s Supreme Court in Protz v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal is having widespread implications for the workers’ compensation process. In Thompson v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd, the Commonwealth Court held that one legal effect was to undermine the legal authority for the entire impairment rating evaluation (IRE) process. Accordingly, the Board could not approve a modification of benefits based upon an IRE.


Loss of earning power appropriate standard in reinstatement of benefits case – Pennsylvania

In Schafer v. WCAB (Reese Masonry), the Commonwealth Court overturned lower rulings by reviving a worker’s petition for reinstatement of benefits. It explained the wrong standard was used; the worker did not need to prove a worsening of his condition or inability to perform his regular job to be entitled to wage-loss compensation; he just had to show that his earning power was adversely affected by his disability and that it arose from his original claim.


Worker awarded benefits for fall that aggravated pre-existing arthritic condition – Tennessee

In Jenny Craig Operations v. Reel, a worker tripped and fell, aggravating the pre-existing arthritis in her knee and necessitating knee replacement surgery. The company accepted liability for a temporary injury to the knee, but it denied liability for the total knee replacement and for any permanent impairment. A trial judge found the fall had caused an acceleration, advancement, or progression of her osteoarthritis, such that she required a total knee replacement and a permanent partial disability of 46.5% to her right lower extremity.

The state’s Supreme Court Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel agreed, noting, “an employer takes an employee as is and assumes the responsibility of having a pre-existing condition aggravated by a work-related injury which might not affect an otherwise healthy person.”

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