Legal Corner

ADA 

Employee unable to wear safety shoes can be terminated

In Holmes v. General Dynamics Mission Systems Inc., a U.S. District Judge in Virginia dismissed an employee’s claims alleging violations of the ADA after she was terminated for being unable to perform the essential functions of her job, specifically, wear required safety shoes. She worked at the manufacturing facility for 18 years and was given an exemption in 2003, based on a note from her doctor.

However, the company stopped exempting her in 2013 because an outside auditor found violations of the protective footwear policy and stated that future violations could jeopardize the company’s certifications. The company did research and present alternative footwear to her and when none were acceptable, she was placed on an excused absence and encouraged her to seek custom-made safety shoes, which the company would reimburse.

After more than two years of absence and no evidence that she pursued the custom-made shoes, she was terminated.

Employer’s failure to raise “regarded as” defense results in jury award to employee

In Robinson v. First State Community Action Agency, a manager told an employee she either had dyslexia or didn’t know what she was doing and placed her on a performance plan. She sought a medical opinion about dyslexia, which was not conclusive, and gave it to her manager who gave it to HR. The HR Director told her the evaluation did not have any impact on her ability to perform essential job functions, and she was to follow the performance improvement plan and she then sought a reasonable accommodation. A few weeks later she was fired.

She sued, alleging the employer regarded her as disabled and failed to provide a reasonable accommodation and a jury agreed. The employer appealed, arguing that the jury instructions didn’t reflect changes that the ADA Amendments Act in 2008. While the 3rd Circuit agreed that the jury instruction was made in error, and “after the 2008 amendments went into effect, an individual who demonstrates that she is ‘regarded as’ disabled, but who fails to demonstrate that she is actually disabled, is not entitled to a reasonable accommodation,” the employer had waived the right to contest it because it had not opposed the use of the argument earlier.

The case is a harsh reminder of the importance of raising all possible defenses early in the litigation to preserve the rights on appeal.

Workers’ Compensation 

No liability for Six Flags in workers’ electrocution – California

In Ingram v. Six Flags Entertainment Corp., an appellate court declined to overturn a jury trial verdict that declared Six Flags was not negligent for the injuries suffered by two workers who were electrocuted while repairing a ride. Although one of the electricians thought he had deenergized the equipment at Magic Mountain, there was an arc flash explosion, which caused serious burns.

They sued the parent company, Six Flags, arguing it failed to provide appropriate personal protective equipment and made changes to its safety program after the incident. However, Six Flags has a policy that forbids working on energized electrical equipment, provides training on how to shut off power, and successfully argued to exclude its post-incident safety program changes from the trial.

Failure to return to light duty work nixes award of TPD – Florida

In MJM Electric Inc. v. Spencer, an appellate court reversed a judge of compensation claims’ decision in favor of an injured worker because the employer had offered suitable light duty work. The electrician was injured at work and saw an authorized physician, but never returned to work in spite of multiple messages from his employer that light-duty work that fell within his work restrictions was available.

After two weeks of no response, the company fired him for job abandonment. He argued he did not recognize the number and had no voice mails. The judge of compensation claims found he was not entitled to temporary partial disability benefits for the first two weeks after his accident, but he could receive disability benefits after his termination because the company failed to meet its burden of showing suitable employment opportunities. The appeals court reversed and remanded the case.

Tort suit against subcontractor can proceed – Florida

In Heredia v. John Beach & Associates, an appellate court ruled that a man working for a subcontractor can sue another subcontractor and an employee. The injured employee was working for QGS, a subcontractor doing roadwork for Lennar Homes LLC and was accidentally struck by a truck owned by another subcontractor, John Beach & Associates, that was doing surveying work.

Under the law, when a contractor sublets work to subcontractors, all employees of the contractor and subcontractors are considered employed in one and the same business and are protected by the exclusive remedy provision. However, the court found in this case, Lennar was not performing any work, was not subletting work, and therefore, was not a contractor. The case can proceed.

Average weekly wage should be based on actual earnings not pro-ration wage – Georgia

A school custodian worked a school year schedule, but had his wage spread out over a 12-month period. In Ware County Board of Education v. Taft, an appellate court ruled that his wages should be based on his contractual rate, not the lesser actual pro-rated amount he earned during the 13-weeks preceding his injury.

Supreme Court provides guidance on PTSD provisions – Minnesota

In Smith v. Carver County, the state Supreme Court reversed a decision by the state’s Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (“WCCA”), finding the 2013 PTSD statute does not require a compensation judge to conduct an independent assessment to verify that the diagnosis was in conformity with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) before accepting the expert’s diagnosis.

The case involved a deputy sheriff who resigned after 10 years and was diagnosed with PTSD by a licensed psychologist. However, an independent psychological evaluator opined that he did not have PTSD, although he had adjustment disorder with anxiety. A WCJ found this opinion more persuasive and denied the claim. The WCCA overturned, finding this opinion did not address the PTSD criteria in the latest version of the DSM.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court reversed noting the compensation judge’s legalistic analysis of the DSM-5 was not to become a substitute for the professional judgment of psychiatrists and psychologists and the judge did not err in finding the independent evaluation more persuasive.

High court rules no fault auto insurer must pay for injured driver’s excess chiropractic charges – Minnesota

In Rodriguez v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., an injured bus driver received 12 weeks of chiropractic treatments, the maximum allowed under the state’s workers’ comp law. She then sought treatment from another chiropractor and payment from her personal automobile insurance policy, which denied payment based on the workers comp payments.

The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled the additional care fell outside of the comp statute because it was with a separate provider whose services had never been characterized as excessive.

Jury verdict of $74.1 million upheld in worker’s death – Missouri

The Ford Motor Co. must pay the widow of a truck driver who was struck by machinery while making a delivery at the Kansas City Assembly Plant ruled an appellate court in Ford v. Ford Motor Co. The driver, who had worked for the trucking company for less than two weeks, was delivering vehicle seats, which were removed by an L-shaped pair of conveyor lines. He entered the area between the conveyor belts to manually clear a jam during seat removal and stepped into a “pinch point” between the tables and was crushed.

The company appealed a jury verdict that assigned the company 95% comparative fault for his death and awarded his widow and son $38 million in compensatory damages, and $38 million for aggravating circumstances. The appeals court disagreed and upheld the award. The company plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Right to cross-examine employer’s expert wrongfully denied – New York

In Matter of Ferguson v. Eallonardo Construction, an appellate court ruled that a worker was wrongfully denied the opportunity to cross-examine the insurance carrier’s medical consultant on how the permanent impairment rating of 40% was reached. While the counsel for the injured worker did not file a competing report, the court ruled that the right to cross-examine the carrier’s consultant was not predicated upon the filing of a competing report. The only requirement is that a request be made at a hearing, prior to the judge’s ruling on the merits.

Failure to complete application sufficient for denial – New York

In Matter of Jones v. Human Resources Administration, an appellate court ruled that an attorney’s failure to fill out every section of an application for administrative review was a proper basis for the Workers’ Compensation Board to deny it. While the worker received benefits for an work-related injury, she was later denied the request to add additional consequential injuries to her claim. There was a no information in the box for question 13 of the RB-89 form, which requested hearing dates, transcripts, etc.

Heart injury hours after accident compensable – North Carolina

In Holland v. Parrish Tire Co., a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals reversed the Industrial Commission’s decision that a worker’s heart injury that occurred hours after he was hit in the chest with a tire was not compensable. While unloading tires for a delivery, he was hit in the chest by a tire that weighed between 100 and 200 pounds. The owner transported him to an urgent care center because he had turned gray and was uncharacteristically slow, where he was sent to an emergency room. There he was diagnosed with an aortic dissection and a collapsed lung and admitted to the intensive care unit.

He underwent surgery and was told he would have a work restriction of being unable to lift more than 40 pounds indefinitely, and was diagnosed with major neurocognitive disorder due to the open-heart surgery, adjustment disorder, and depression. Later, he was rated permanently disabled and unable to work by a treating physician and filed for workers’ comp, which was denied.

The appellate court found that the commission had not adequately considered physicians’ testimony that aortic dissections could be caused by trauma.

No comp for traveling salesman for car accident after celebration with coworkers – Pennsylvania

In Peters v. Workers Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB), a traveling salesperson drove past his house on his way to a happy hour with colleagues and was injured in a car accident when returning home. Although he argued that he was traveling home from a work-sponsored event in a work van, and that as a traveling employee, his accident should be compensable, a judge, the WCAB, and the Commonwealth Court disagreed. It found that the gathering was not furthering the interest of the employer, but rather was a social gathering. Further, while a traveling employee is presumed to be within the course and scope of employment when he is driving to or from work, he had abandoned his employment by driving past his house on his way to the happy hour with colleagues.

Failure to use an automated external defibrillator not breach of duty – Pennsylvania

In Desher v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, an appellate court judge affirmed a trial court ruling denying the guardian of a worker, who suffered a cardiac arrest and a subsequent brain injury at work, damages under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). The guardian claimed the former employer was liable for the incident for not administering an automated external defibrillator (AED).

While the company had an AED within 100 yards of the incident, it did not use it and paramedics arrived within two minutes and used one. There was no evidence suggesting a heightened risk of cardiac events for employees or that it provide assistance in the form of an AED.

Continuing denial of opioids affirmed – Pennsylvania

In Jason Golembesky v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Worth & Co. Inc.), a manufacturing worker had been on high doses of opioid oxycodone since his injury in 2010. In 2016, the employer filed a utilization review petition, and the reviewing doctor opined that the opioid prescription was excessive. The worker filed a petition for review of the findings, arguing he had tried alternative methods of controlling the pain, which had not worked. The employer also presented evidence from an independent review doctor who noted the worker was taking massive dosages, essentially three times what is considered a high dose of morphine equivalent.

A WCJ and the WCAB found the opinions of the independent reviewers more credible than those of the worker’s providers.

More than ten years after injury, worker awarded benefits for right knee condition – Virginia

In Nanochemonics Holdings, LLC v. McKinney, a worker sustained a work-related left knee injury. More than ten years later, he filed a claim for a right knee condition. Stressing that the employer is responsible for all sequelae that flow from the primary work-related injury, an appellate court affirmed the award benefits, noting that the problem was caused, at least in part, by an altered gait brought about by his earlier left knee injury. While it acknowledged that the worker was morbidly obese, this did not amount to a sufficient break in causation.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and Slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

OSHA watch

FY 2018 Enforcement summary released

OSHA conducted 32,023 total inspections in FY 2018, a number that has remained relatively stable over the past three fiscal years. For more information see the related article, Insights from OSHA’s recently released enforcement summary.

Comments on updating Lockout/Tagout standard due August 18

Comments on a possible update of the Control of Hazardous Energy (Lockout/Tagout) standard are due by Aug. 18. Emphasis is being placed on how employers have been using control circuit devices and how modernizing the standard might improve worker safety without additional burdens for employers. It wants to hear from employers about how their operations would be affected if OSHA staff interprets the “alternative measures that provide effective protection” requirement of the minor servicing exception to include use of the same reliable control circuits. For additional details and information on how to file comments.

New training programs available to help protect construction workers from fall hazards

Two Susan Harwood Training Grant Program recipients have developed free training programs to help protect construction workers from fall hazards. The University of Tennessee training program offers three modules on OSHA’s role in workplace safety, health and safety standards affecting construction workers, and preventing common types of falls at construction sites. The University of Florida training program uses software to present 360-degree panoramas of construction scenarios to test trainees’ skills at identifying fall hazards. The training software is available in English and Spanish.

Whistleblower website updated

The streamlined design highlights important information for employers and employees on more than 20 statutes enforced by the agency. The new whistleblower homepage utilizes video to showcase the covered industries, which include the railroad, airline, and securities industries.

Whistleblower action: Truck driver reinstated after refusing to drive in winter storm

A box truck driver was reinstated and will receive almost $200,000, including $100,000 in punitive damages, from Kentucky-based Freight Rite, Inc. that fired him after he refused to drive in bad weather. Inspectors determined the termination is a violation of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA). For more information.

Reminder: Hurricane preparedness and response

The Hurricane Preparedness and Response webpage provides information on creating evacuation plans and supply kits and reducing hazards for hurricane response and recovery work.

Cal/OSHA emergency wildfire smoke regulation takes effect

The emergency wildfire smoke regulation took effect July 29 after being approved by the state’s Office of Administrative Law.

Effective through January 28, 2020 with two possible 90-day extensions, the regulation applies to workplaces where the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for airborne particulate matter (PM 2.5) is 151 or greater, and where employers should reasonably anticipate that employees could be exposed to wildfire smoke.

Recent fines and awards

California

  • After a worker’s hand was crushed while cleaning a rotating auger, food processing company, SFFI Company, Inc., faces six citations and $79,245 in penalties related to lockout/tagout and training.
  • Resource Environmental, Inc., faces $49,500 in penalties after an unstable, unsupported wall collapsed during a building demolition, resulting in fatal injuries to a worker.
  • Gladiator Rooter & Plumbing was working in a crawl space replacing underground sewer pipes for airline caterer Gate Gourmet, Inc. at the San Francisco International Airport when two plumbers were poisoned by carbon monoxide, one requiring hospitalization. Gladiator Rooter & Plumbing was fined $50,850 for eight violations and Gate Gourmet faces $18,000 in proposed penalties for one violation.
  • In Secretary of Labor v. Bergelectric Corp., an OSHRC judge vacated three citations levied against the electric company, based in Carlsbad, after finding that the company did have an adequate fall protection program in place.

Florida

  • Jimmie Crowder Excavating and Land Clearing Inc. faces $81,833 in penalties for exposing employees to amputation and other safety hazards at the company’s facility in Tallahassee. An employee suffered an arm amputation after it was caught in a conveyor belt that started unexpectedly as an employee removed material.
  • The Jacksonville Zoological Society Inc. was cited for exposing employees to workplace safety hazards at the Jacksonville zoo after a zookeeper was injured by a rhinoceros. The animal park faces $14,661 in proposed penalties.
  • Tampa-based Edwin Taylor Corp., failed to provide fall protection on several occasions, one resulting in the death of a worker who fell 22 feet while building homes must pay a $101,399 fine, an administrative law judge with the OSHRC ruled.

Georgia

  • Transdev Services Inc. was cited for exposing employees at a Norcross worksite to safety and health hazards. The company faces $188,714 in penalties for obstructing access to emergency eyewash and shower stations, failing to label hazardous chemicals, provide training on hazardous chemicals and incipient stage firefighting and fire extinguisher use, and train and evaluate forklift operators properly. The company had been cited previously for similar violations.
  • Woodgrain Millwork Co., operating as Woodgrain Distribution Inc, was cited for exposing employees to chemical and struck-by hazards at the company’s distribution facility in Lawrenceville. The company faces $125,466 in penalties.
  • Norcross-based Fama Construction must pay nearly $200,000 in penalties because it was the controlling employer on a worksite and found to have repeat violations according to an OSHRC ruling.

Illinois

  • Inspected after an employee was electrocuted, Hudapack Metal Treating of Illinois Inc, based in Glendale Heights, was cited for 21 serious health and safety violations related to electrical safety and PPE. The company faces penalties of $181,662.

Missouri

  • R.V. Wagner Inc, based in Affton, was cited for exposing employees to trench engulfment hazards as they installed concrete storm water pipes in St. Louis. The company received two willful violations for failing to use a trench box or other trench protection techniques in an excavation greater than five feet in depth and to provide a safe means to exit the excavation and faces proposed penalties of $212,158.

New York

  • Northridge Construction Corp. was cited for willful and serious violations of workplace safety standards at the company’s headquarters in East Patchogue. The company faces $224,620 in penalties following the death of an employee when a structure collapsed during installation of roof panels on a shed. The penalties are being contested.
  • U.S. Nonwoven Corp., a home and personal care fabric product manufacturer, was cited for repeat and serious safety violations after an employee suffered a fractured hand at the plant in Hauppauge. The company faces $287,212 in penalties.

North Carolina

  • Burlington-based Conservators Center Inc. received three serious citations totaling $3,000, after an intern was killed by a lion during a routine cleaning,

Pennsylvania

  • In Francis Palo Inc. v. Secretary of Labor, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia declined to review the OSHRC decision finding that substantial evidence supported an administrative law judge’s ruling that due diligence by the company would have prevented the collapse that injured two workers.

Wisconsin

  • Following a fatality, Pukall Lumber Company Inc, a lumber mill in Arbor Vitae, was cited for exposing employees to multiple safety hazards. The company faces penalties of $348,467 for 15 violations, including two willful citations for failing to implement energy control procedures, and ensure the conveyer had adequate guarding to prevent employees from coming in contact with the moving parts.

For additional information.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and Slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

HR Tip: Supreme Court ruling alerts employers to quickly compare EEOC complaints and lawsuits

In Fort Bend County v. Lois M. Davis published on June 3, the US Supreme Court ruled that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a processing rule, not a jurisdictional prescription, and an objection to it may be forfeited “if the party asserting the rule waited too long to raise the point.” This ruling revolves around the fact that employees filing suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must first file a complaint with the EEOC.

It means that employers must immediately check if charges in litigation filed under Title VII jive with those in the previously filed EEOC complaint. If the charges do not match, and employers act immediately, then they can get that claim dismissed, but delaying the action, which occurred in this case, means that chance is forfeited. The question of how long an employer can wait before raising an objection or defense without risking forfeiture was not decided by the Supreme Court and will be litigated and developed in the lower courts going forward.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and Slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com