Legal Corner

ADA
Another court decision scales back right to take more leave after exhausting FMLA

Last month, we reported on the 7th US Circuit Appeals decision in the Severson case. That same appellate court recently ruled in Golden v. IHA that extended leave beyond what the FMLA requires is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

In this case, an employee with breast cancer, required surgery and an extended leave. When her 12 weeks of FMLA leave was about to expire, she sought an unspecified period of leave, but her employer declined to grant more than four additional weeks of leave. When she could not return from work after 16 weeks off, she was terminated.

It’s important to note that in both cases the employee’s return to work date was unclear. Employers should conduct an individualized assessment of each leave request to determine whether a leave of absence or intermittent leave is reasonable and effective in helping the employee return to work. There is a split in authority among the courts that the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately may have to resolve.


FMLA

Managers’ inaction can be costly

In Boadi v. Center for Human Development an employee was hospitalized unexpectedly for a mental health condition and her son notified her employer four times over the course of one week, including her supervisor, the supervisor’s boss, and the boss’s boss. Although he explained that his mother was unintelligible, a supervisor told him it was unacceptable for him to call instead of his mother. The same supervisor informed the vice president of Human Resources that the employee was hospitalized and later reported her a “no call/no show” when she failed to personally call about her continued absences. A termination letter was written and when the employee returned with her doctor’s medical certification, she was told her employment had been terminated because she abandoned her job.

During the case, the court specifically commented that the managers were “not trained on the FMLA.” Noting the lack of training, the court found that the employer willfully violated the FMLA, and awarded liquidated damages, which doubled the back-pay award to $300,000.

 

Workers’ Compensation
Comp’s ‘going and coming’ rule determines employer’s vicarious liability – California

In Morales-Simental v. Genentech, the court explained that an employer generally will be held vicariously liable for the tortious conduct of its employees within the scope of their employment. However, case law recognizes that an employee commuting to or from work is typically outside the scope of employment, and the employer is not liable for the employee’s torts while traveling. There are some exceptions, but the court found they did not apply and, therefore, the employer could not be held vicariously liable for the alleged negligence of an employee in causing a fatal car accident.


Convicted of fraud, worker still entitled to benefits – California

In Pearson Ford v. WCAB (Hernandez), a worker accidentally slammed a trunk lid on his hand, but did not break any bones. He received workers’ comp for pain and later began wearing a sling and telling his treatment providers that he was unable to use his left arm and hand. A private investigator shot video of him removing his sling after attending doctor’s appointments, using his left hand to drive, carrying groceries, and lifting a washing machine. He pleaded guilty to making materially false statements for the purpose of obtaining workers’ compensation benefits.

Later, a workers’ compensation judge issued, and the Appeals Board approved, an award of permanent partial disability benefits. The court reasoned there was a compensable injury that was not directly connected to the worker’s fraudulent misrepresentation.


Failure to train in lockout/tagout leads to $310,000 settlement – California

Growers Street Cooling has agreed to pay $310,000 in costs and civil penalties, maintain and implement written hazardous energy control procedures, and conduct proper training as a result of legal action brought by the Monterey County District Attorney following a 2013 worker fatality at the Salinas-based produce-cooling company. The worker had been working at the company as a machine operator for only 16 days prior to the accident and was never trained on lockout/tagout procedures. Nor did the company maintain a written lockout/tagout policy or training program; thus, they were charged with systematically violating worker safety laws.


Comp coverage uncertain for off-duty police officers at Las Vegas concert shooting – California

Due to some muddy language in the state’s Labor Code, it is uncertain if municipalities are required or even allowed to pay to treat off-duty police who chose independently to intervene in an out-of-state emergency. Orange County rejected workers’ compensation claims from four sheriff’s deputies injured in the shooting and more claims are expected. More than 200 Southern California police officers attended the Las Vegas concert. Had the incident occurred in California, they would be covered, but the Labor Code makes no mention of out-of-state tragedies.


Employer can terminate benefits when employee returns to “baseline” – Georgia

In EMC v. McDuffie, an employee had a significant disability to his knee at the time he took the job, which he did not disclose, and he suffered a subsequent knee injury when he stepped in a hole while working. The Supreme Court ruled that when an employee has a pre-existing condition that limits work capacity, as soon as the employee recovers from “the aggravation”, the employer’s responsibility for workers’ compensation ceases. The court did not define baseline.

This is an important decision because it’s well established that employers are responsible for an aggravation of a pre-existing condition only until the aggravation ends, but there wasn’t a case that said when an employee still has restrictions, which they had before, the employer is not responsible.


Meretricious relationship results in disqualification of death benefits – Georgia

In Sanchez v. Carter, a state appellate court cited a 1990 decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia, Williams v. Corbett, and found within the context of a workers’ compensation claim, a meretricious relationship does not entitle a dependent to death benefits, even if actual dependency exists. In this case, the couple had lived together for 13 years, but never legally married.


Court reduces award in retaliatory discharge claim – Illinois

Two employees suffered work-related injuries and were fired for failing to report to work after an independent medical examiner (IME) cleared them to return to their jobs. They filed suit, asserting they had been discharged in retaliation for having pursued workers’ compensation claims. The Illinois Appellate Court ruled that an employer may not rely solely on an IME in terminating the employee for failing to return to work or for failing to call in his absences when the opinion conflicts with the employee’s doctor. But, the worker must still prove his discharge was causally related to his exercising of workers’ compensation rights.

The men then filed an amended complaint and pursued separate jury trials. While a jury found in favor of the employer in one case, in Francek v. Dominick’s Finer Foods, the jury awarded $156,315.50 in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages, plus court costs to the employee. However, the appellate court concluded that the award of punitive damages was unconstitutionally excessive (16:1) under federal due process standard and concluded that a 9:1 ratio would be appropriate.


Workers’ comp precludes security’s guard personal injury suit – Missouri

In Kayden v. Ford Motor Co., U.S. Security Associates provided security services under a contract for a Ford assembly plant. A security guard slipped and fell in the parking lot, where it was determined a pothole was not repaired properly. After she filed a personal injury suit against Ford, Ford moved for summary judgment, asserting that it qualified as the employer for purposes of the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Act and the court agreed.


Exception to schedule loss of use (SLU) allows apportionment – New York

While generally a judge or board may not apportion a PPD award based upon a preexisting condition that did not prevent the employee from effectively performing his or her job duties at the time of a subsequent work-related injury, apportionment may be applicable if the medical evidence establishes that the prior injury – had it been compensable – would have resulted in an SLU finding. In the Matter of the Claim of Sanchez v. STS Steel, there was medical expert opinion that a non-work related surgical procedure involving the excision of the meniscus right knee would have resulted in a 7.5% SLU; therefore, apportionment was appropriate.


Estate can pursue wrongful death claim – New York

In Assevero v. Hamilton & Church Properties, an employee fell from a ladder and filed a Labor Law action asserting an unsecured extension ladder shifted as he was descending and caused the fall. A trial judge granted summary judgement to the employer, and the employee appealed. While the appeal was pending, the employee died from an overdose of pain medication prescribed for his injuries. The Appellate Division’s 2nd Department overturned the grant of summary judgment for the employer and the estate’s administrator filed a motion to amend the complaint to include a cause of action for wrongful death, which was allowed.


Widow of worker killed by street sweeper awarded $41.5m – New York

The widow of a New York City Department of Sanitation worker killed by an out-of-control street sweeper won a $41.5 million negligence lawsuit. The New York Post reports that a Queens jury recently awarded the sum to the widow for the death of her 43-year-old husband who was struck and killed by a colleague’s vehicle inside a garage in 2014. The city plans to pursue legal options to reduce the award.


Death from accidental overdose compensable – North Carolina

In Brady v. Best Buy Co., an injured worker was taking narcotics to treat his compensable low back injury, additional medication for treatment of depression, and other prescription medications. The Court of Appeals upheld a reward of benefits to the beneficiaries noting the unchallenged finding that pain medications established the death as compensable, regardless of whether his medications for depression had a contributory effect.


Going and coming rule does not bar death benefits in case of donut shop manager – Pennsylvania

In Rana v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd, an employee worked as a manager at one of the employer’s three donut shops, but occasionally was called upon to handle issues at the other two shops. He died in a car crash traveling from his residence to one of the other shops to potentially fill in for a kitchen employee who had fallen ill during a work shift. The court found that the manager was a traveling employee and, therefore, his dependent’s death benefits claim was not barred by the going and coming rule. It also noted even if he was considered a stationary employee, the claim would still be compensable, since he was engaged in a special assignment on behalf of the employer.


Commonwealth Court overturns denial of benefits based on ‘going and coming’ rule – Pennsylvania

In Fields v. WCAB (Carl G’s Total Cleanouts), an employee had been working at the same job site doing demolition work for two or three weeks. He and a colleague took a company truck to drop off debris at a scrapyard (they received a percentage of the metal hauled as part of wages) and then the colleague planned to drop the employee at home and return the truck to the employer. En route, the employee sustained injuries in an auto accident. A workers’ compensation judge determined, and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed, that he had a fixed place of work, and the accident occurred during his commute home from the workplace, and was not compensable under the going and coming rule.

Upon appeal, the Commonwealth Court noted exceptions to the going and coming rule include when a worker’s employment contract includes transportation to and from work; when the worker has no fixed place of work; when the worker is on a special mission for his employer; or when the worker’s travel is furthering the business of the employer. While the lower courts focused on the fixed place of employment, the facts supported a legal conclusion that he was furthering his employer’s business when he was injured – to dispose of the material the crew had cleaned out of the job site.


Witnessing workplace shooting caused PTSD – Tennessee

In Evans v. Alliance Healthcare Services, a bus driver was transporting a counselor to a patient’s home in response to a call from the patient’s brother. As they entered the house, the patient shot the counselor. While the counselor survived the attack, the bus driver received mental health care through workers’ compensation but she did not return to work.

The company acknowledged that the shooting initially may have caused the PTSD, but asserted the continuing mental health problems were caused by other events. The trial court disagreed and found she was permanently and totally disabled and that the shooting incident was the cause of her disability. This was upheld by the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel of the Supreme Court.

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