Legal Corner

ADA
PA company faces charges of hiring bias against applicants in drug treatment

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit against Clearfield-based Appalachian Wood Products Inc., a major supplier of cabinet components to the kitchen and bath industry. The suit alleges that the company unlawfully barred job applicants from certain positions if they were taking prescribed medications for drug addiction treatment without evaluating whether the medications affected their ability to perform the job safely. Also, unlawfully, the company required applicants to disclose their use of medications prior to making conditional offers.

FMLA
Retaliation claim by fired auditor can go to trial

In Batson v. The Salvation Army, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled an employee who was fired after returning from medical leave and unsuccessfully applying for a position she previously held can go to trial on her retaliation claim under the FMLA. The employee, who had multiple sclerosis, was promoted to an audit manager position when the audit secretary became ill. When the audit secretary died, the new position was eliminated and around the same time the employee took FMLA leave.

When she returned to work, she was told her position was eliminated but she could apply for her old position as a senior auditor, which she did and was the only one to meet the application deadline. At the same time, a new audit secretary was hired. When she was interviewed, she was asked many questions about her health. In making the decision not to hire her, the new audit secretary noted she performed poorly in the interview, and she had “recent performance issues” as an audit manager.

The court, however, found that the health-related questions during the interview suggested the audit secretary was concerned about the need for FMLA leave, not her interview performance and had no experience supervising the applicant. Emails also suggested the audit secretary decided not to hire her because of her illness but recognized the need to come up with an alternative justification.

Employer takeaway: Under the FMLA, if a position was eliminated for legitimate reasons, reinstatement rights no longer exist. However, several mistakes were made in this process. The employee was told she could apply “as a formality” for a recently posted senior auditor position (her former position) and would be transferred and she was the only applicant to apply before the deadline. The focus on health-related questions during the interview was inappropriate and the emails during the selection process were incriminating.

Workers’ Compensation
Exclusive remedy defense can be added to case after several appeals – Illinois

In Hiatt v. Ill. Tool Works, an employee of Western Plastics was seriously injured when both his arms got caught in a metal roller and had to be amputated. He filed suit against multiple parties, including Illinois Tool Works (ITW), which sold products to Western and was housed in the same building. All suits were settled or dismissed except for the ITW case, which went on for five years and involved seven amended complaints and over 40 dispositions.

The employee claimed that ITW was engaged in a joint venture with Western and had knowledge that the machine involved in the incident was dangerous. ITW moved for summary judgment, which was granted by a trial judge, but reversed by the Appellate Court. The trial judge, on her own initiative, raised the exclusive remedy defense.

The case went through more appeals and ITW raised the exclusive remedy defense for the first time, while the employee argued the law-of-the-case doctrine, which limits re-litigation of a previously decided issue in the same case. The Appellate Court noted that its prior decision had not explicitly said ITW could not raise an exclusive remedy defense on remand and that ITW, as a member of the joint venture, is an agent entitled to the same immunity afforded to the employer by the exclusive-remedy provision.

PTD granted to worker unable to find work – Mississippi

In Harris v. Stone County Board of Supervisors, the Court of Appeals reinstated permanent total disability benefits to a maintenance worker who could not find a job after reaching maximum medical improvement for a knee injury. A functional capacity examiner found that he was able to work full-time, mostly sitting; however, he had done manual labor all his working life. A vocational rehabilitation counselor noted very limited job skills and found 12 low paying jobs, which the worker applied for without success.

After several appeals, a Court of Appeals noted a worker is presumed to be permanently and totally disabled (PTD) if he reports to work after reaching MMI but is not reinstated. The employer failed to meet its burden to prove otherwise.

Physician assistant does not meet definition of physician in workers’ comp – Nebraska

In Bower v. Eaton Corp., an employee who injured his shoulder underwent four surgeries and the company accepted responsibility for three of the surgeries. The employee appealed an award of the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court that concerned a number of issues, including his impairment rating.The Supreme Court held that the Workers’ Compensation Court appropriately failed to consider the medical report as evidence of the worker’s impairment. The medical report which indicated the injured worker suffered a 15 percent permanent impairment to the right upper extremity was signed by an orthopedic surgeon’s physician assistant and not by the surgeon.

Injury incurred while scanning parking pass at kiosk not compensable – New York

In a divided decision, Matter of the Claim of Shelly A. Grover v. State Insurance Fund, Workers’ Compensation Board, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court ruled that an employee’s injuries sustained while stopping to scan her employee parking pass were not compensable. The privately-owned parking garage that she was accessing is located underneath the building where she worked. The garage is open to the public, but there is a section of the garage exclusively dedicated to employees located in the building.

Although a law judge found the injuries compensable, the Workers’ Compensation Board ruled that the incident did not arise out of and in the course of her employment and the Appellate Court agreed. The Board found that the parking garage was utilized by members of the public, as well as other businesses located within the same building as the employer. The Board further noted that the employer did not own or maintain the garage.

Special employer liable for half of comp benefits – New York

A truck driver worked for Eaton’s Trucking Service, which exclusively hauled cargo for Quality Carriers. Eaton operated under Quality’s logo and license without which Eaton could not have conducted its hauling operation. When the driver filed a claim for injuries to his right hand, wrist, arm and shoulder, he identified both Eaton and Quality as his employer. Following a hearing, a WCLJ determined that the driver had an occupational disease of right carpal tunnel syndrome and found that Eaton was his general employer and Quality was his special employer, and that each was liable for 50% of the workers’ compensation awards. The Board upheld that determination.

Upon appeal to the Supreme Court’s appellate division, the court noted that while Quality did not control the day-to-day oversight of the driver, Eaton and the driver operated entirely under Quality’s authority and pursuant to its policies. The Court also stressed that when there is a general and special employer, the Board is empowered to make an award against either or both of the employers.

Ordinary supervision does not warrant claim of mental injury – New York

In Matter of Lanese v. Anthem Health Servs.,a registered nurse case manager alleged that she suffered a relapse of preexisting depression and anxiety and had to stop working as a result of harassment and bullying by her managers. The court found, however, that she was receiving normal oversight and monitoring to assist her in correcting deficiencies and improving her performance that were no greater than what other workers experienced in the normal work environment.

Work Comp case file can’t be sealed from public access – North Carolina

In Mastanduno v. National Freight Industries, an employee asked the Industrial Commission to keep the information related to his workers’ compensation claim out of the public record, which includes a searchable online data base. He was concerned the information would affect his ability to obtain a visa, his insurance premiums, his qualifications to adopt a child, and his eligibility to secure a line of credit, as well as expose him to identity theft and cyberbullying.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the request, noting the general statute specifies that all commission records, aside from awards issued by the Commission, are not public and the exclusion of awards meant that the General Assembly intended for awards of the Industrial Commission to be public.

Employee’s fall on premises after clocking out is compensable – Pennsylvania

In Wegmans Food Markets v. WCAB (Tress), a cashier had finished her shift and was walking across the store to pick up a hamburger, which she had ordered from the store’s pub. She slipped and fell and was injured.

The Commonwealth Court noted that in order to be compensable the fall must have occurred on the employer’s premises, be caused by a condition of the premises, and be required by the nature of the job to be on the premises. In this case, the first two were clearly met and the court noted that getting to and from the work station is a necessary part of employment. In Pennsylvania, injuries that occur on the employer’s premises while the worker is coming to or leaving work are in the course of employment if they occur within a reasonable period of time before or after the worker’s shift.

Supreme Court reduces burden of proof in firefighter cancer cases – Pennsylvania

While the state had created a presumption of an occupational disease for firefighters with cancer, the Commonwealth Court read the language as requiring firefighters to prove they had industrial exposure to known carcinogens that caused the form of cancer. In a recent decision, City of Philadelphia Fire Department vs Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Sladek), the Supreme Court lowered the burden of proof, noting that a cancer-stricken firefighter has the burden of proving the “occupational disease” but did not have to prove that an identified Group 1 carcinogen actually caused the cancer. This involves showing they spent four or more years working as a firefighter after passing a physical examination that they were cancer-free, as well as direct exposure to a Group 1 carcinogen.

Gradually incurred injury not an injury by accident and not compensable – Virginia

In Daggett v. Old Dominion Univ., an appellate court upheld the denial of benefits, noting that an injured employee must demonstrate an “identifiable incident” or “sudden precipitating event” to receive workers’ comp benefits. In this case, a shoulder injury was a result of repetitive trauma. On the day of the alleged injury, the employee repeated the same combination of movements to rotate and move 14 smart boards, each weighing between 28 and 48 pounds.

Employer must protect workers’ family from asbestos exposure – Virginia

In Quisenberry v. Huntington Ingalls, a divided (4-3) Supreme Court ruled that an employer has a duty to protect its employees’ family members from potential exposure to asbestos fibers that employees may carry home on their work clothes. The daughter of a former employee, who regularly laundered her father’s clothing, died from mesothelioma and her son filed a wrongful death suit.

In reaching its decision, the court noted there does not need to be actual interaction between the parties, so the fact that the alleged harm occurred at a location removed from the employer’s business and after hours was irrelevant. Because the shipyard owed the duty to the family members, it was susceptible to tort liability.

Bus driver’s failure to wear seat belt nixes benefits – Virginia

In Mailloux v. American Transp., a bus driver, who sustained serious injuries in an accident in which his bus was struck from behind, causing it to careen against a guard rail and flip over, ejecting the driver, was found to have violated his employer’s safety policy and disqualified from receiving benefits. The appellate court showed that he did not sustain the injuries while in the driver’s seat, but only after being ejected from the vehicle, and that the driver was aware of the employer’s safety policy requiring seatbelt use at all times. Thus, the proximate cause of the driver’s injuries was his failure to use the seatbelt and he was not entitled to benefits.

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