Legal Corner

ADA

Construction company pays $100K for firing worker with epilepsy

A Bellingham, Washington company, formerly doing business as Diamond B Constructors, Inc. and its successor, Harris Companies, will pay $100,000 and provide other relief to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). A pipefitter, who also holds a rigger’s certification, was dispatched by her union to work on a project. When she told her supervisor that she has epilepsy, he and other supervisors determined she could not work safely at heights and terminated her. She had not requested accommodations, had no medical restrictions, and her epilepsy was well controlled by medicine.

The law requires employers to make a case-by-case assessment of an employee’s ability to perform the job when safety concerns exist. EEOC Seattle Field Director Nancy Sienko said, “Epilepsy reportedly affects 2.2 million Americans and affects each person differently. It is critical that employers not base job decisions on stereotypes, but instead carefully consider each individual’s abilities.”

FMLA

FMLA doesn’t provide protection for employees to evaluate family member’s medical condition

In Schaar v. U.S. Steel Corp., a manager in the customer quality engineering department, who lived in Michigan, was aware of problems with a top customer in Mississippi. When the matter became urgent, he was onsite in Tennessee and was ordered to travel to Mississippi to handle the problem himself. He refused because his wife had a heart condition and wasn’t feeling well and he had to return to Michigan to assess the situation. When he arrived home, he determined his wife did not require medical attention.

Returning to work the next day in Michigan, he was fired for insubordination. The manager sued under the FMLA for both interference and retaliation. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled in favor of U.S. Steel on its motion for summary judgment on both claims. The manager never requested FMLA leave or a reduced work schedule to care for his wife.

Distinguishing between providing care to a family member and evaluating a family member’s condition, the court determined he was not providing care and was not entitled to FMLA leave.

Workers’ Compensation

Comp settlement bars claim for disability discrimination – California

In an unpublished decision, Kennedy v. MUFG Union Bank, a bank employee claimed she worked in a hostile work environment and took a medical leave for stress, anxiety, and depression. While she was out, the bank restructured and eliminated her position. Unlike others, she did not receive a severance package.

Her request to return on a reduced work schedule was denied because the position was eliminated, so she filed a comp claim. When it was settled, she resigned voluntarily. She then filed suit based on disability and her race. The court argued there could be no wrongful termination because she was not terminated and that the record demonstrated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the increased supervision.

Employer not liable for fatal accident caused by injured employee – California

While commuting to work, an employee of the City of Los Angeles struck and killed a pedestrian. A chemist who worked in the lab, the employee did not use his car for employment. He did have a neurological condition and had fallen at work, suffering a back sprain. After some time off, he was allowed to return to work with restrictions. About three weeks later he was driving to work and struck and killed a pedestrian. Initially his license was suspended, but it was reinstated and he was not charged.

Two brothers of the deceased argued the city should be held responsible because it knew of his condition and allowed him to return to work prematurely, so the “work-spawned risk endangering the public” exception to the going and coming rule applied. The court disagreed and found the chemist was on his commute to work and the accident was unrelated to his employment.

Exclusive remedy defense in civil suit allowed in spite of comp denial – Florida

In McNair v. Dorsey, an appellate ruled that the employer’s denial of liability for a comp claim did not prevent it from using the exclusive remedy defense in a civil case. The employee worked for James Armstrong’s tree service company and was working with a coworker, Dorsey, when he alleged he suffered injuries. The insurance company found that there was no compensable claim. He then voluntarily dismissed the comp claim and alleged negligence on the part of both Armstrong and Dorsey, arguing the exclusive remedy defense did not apply since his claim had been denied.

While a trial court found in favor of the employer, the appellate court noted an employer can be barred from raising a workers’ compensation exclusivity defense if the employer denies the employee’s claim “by asserting that the injury did not occur in the course and scope of his or her employment.” However, the court noted that the employer is not always foreclosed from claiming immunity to a lawsuit simply because it denied compensability in an earlier proceeding.The factfinder needs to determine if the accident occurred in the course and scope of employment and would have been covered by workers’ comp and protected by exclusive remedy.

Worker who filed comp claim after being fired can bring retaliatory discharge suit – Florida

In Salus v. Island Hospitality Florida Management Inc. a worker reported an injury and later told the employer he was having difficulty getting follow-up treatment. Two weeks later he was fired, allegedly for threatening physical harm to a co-worker, which he denied. He filed suit for retaliatory discharge. The trial court found that reporting an injury was not the same as filing a claim and granted summary judgment to the employer.

The appellate court disagreed. It noted it would not make sense to limit the statute to retaliatory acts that occurred after filing the claim because an employer could easily avoid liability by firing the employee right away. Further the employee’s actions were consistent with a workers’ comp claim that is protected. Since there was a genuine issue of material fact as to the reason for termination, summary judgement was inappropriate.

Health care providers can’t go after comp settlement – Illinois

After an injured employee filed for bankruptcy protection for minimal assets and her pending workers comp claim ($31,000), the state Supreme Court ruled that the proceeds of a workers comp settlement are exempt from claims made by medical providers who treated the injury or illness in re Hernandez. She owed a combined $138,000 to the three medical practices.

Section 21 of the statute provides that any payment, award or decision under the Workers’ Compensation Act is unequivocally free from claims to satisfy debt; however, the health care providers argued that amendments in 2005 provide an exception to the exemption. The court disagreed, noting there was “no ambiguity whatsoever in this provision.”

Employer does not have to pay for rehab after injury is resolved – Minnesota

In Ewing v. Print Craft Inc., an employee sprained his ankle and there was medical disagreement as to whether he developed complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). His primary care provider and podiatrist found he had, but doctors at the Mayo Clinic disagreed and said the injury was resolved. He met with a rehabilitation consultant who prepared a rehabilitation plan and submitted it to the Department of Labor and Industry and also provided medical management services to address Ewing’s reported symptoms.

Although the insurance company notified her that they were requiring an IME and would not pay for any further services, the consultant continued to provide services. The IME found that the employee had suffered an ankle sprain and did not have CRPS. A compensation judge held the injury was resolved on the date provided by the Mayo Clinic. The consultant appealed and the WC Court of Appeals overturned, noting the print company needed to provide notice and show good cause to terminate the rehabilitation plan.

The Supreme Court reversed, noting an employer’s liability ends when the worker is no longer disabled.

Worker who intentionally shot self with nail gun denied comp – Nebraska

In Eddy v. Builders Supply Co. Inc., an employee said a nail gun misfired and caused a three-quarter-inch nail to become embedded in her right temple. There were no witnesses. While co-workers testified that guns had misfired in the past, the company presented evidence regarding her personal life and a possible suicide note. The compensation court found that the employee shot herself intentionally and the Supreme Court agreed.

Misrepresentations about job search nix benefits – New York

In Matter of Calabrese v. Fortini Inc., an appellate court upheld a finding that a worker had made misrepresentations about his efforts to find a new job, thereby forfeiting his entitlement to benefits. The employer’s investigator contacted several of the employers identified by the worker and found he had not submitted an application, applied for a job that did not exist, or the contact did not exist.

Although the appellate court acknowledged that this evidence was hearsay, it was sufficiently reliable and provided substantial evidence to support the Workers’ Compensation Board finding that the worker had made false representations to obtain benefits.

Award of benefits for unwitnessed and unexplained fall upheld – New York

In Matter of Docking v. Lapp Insulators LLC, a truckdriver was loading a cart when he apparently fell and was found unconscious and bleeding by co-workers. When he regained consciousness, he had no memory of what happened. Under state law, there is a presumption of compensability for accidents occurring during the course of employment, which are unwitnessed or unexplained, and he was awarded benefits by a compensation law judge.

Upon appeal, a state appellate court noted to rebut the presumption, it is the employer’s burden “to provide substantial evidence that the accident was not work-related.” While the employer presented medical testimony that the fall and resulting brain injury were caused by a preexisting cardiovascular condition, the Emergency Room doctor testified that there were no signs of heart damage or atrial fibrillation. The possibility of a preexisting, idiopathic condition was not enough to overturn the decision.

Assaulted bus driver not fully disabled by PTSD and morbid obesity – New York

In Matter of the Claim of Robert Rapaglia v. New York City Transit Authority, the Supreme Court Appellate Division affirmed a Workers Compensation Board decision that the driver had a 60% loss of earning capacity but was not fully disabled. The bus driver argued that the board failed to consider his obesity and limited education and work experience in calculating his percentage of lost wage-earning capacity.

The court noted that in rating the severity of a medical impairment due to PTSD or other causally-related psychiatric conditions, “the evaluation should include the impact of the psychiatric impairment on functional ability, including activities of daily living.” While there was conflicting medical testimony, the court found the Board had not erred in finding that he could not drive a bus, but was capable of other work, nor could it conclude that his obesity was causally related to the workplace injury.

Employer may have to pay for expensive compound cream – Pennsylvania

In Workers’ First Pharmacy Services LLC v. Bureau of Workers’ Compensation Fee Review Hearing Office (Gallagher Bassett Services), the Commonwealth Court ruled that a pharmacy did not prematurely file a fee review petition to challenge an employer’s refusal to pay for a compound cream that had been prescribed to an injured employee. The employee had injured her shoulder and the comp claim was accepted. Her physician prescribed a compound cream, which the pharmacy dispensed and billed the employer $4,870.

The employer refused to pay, and the pharmacy filed a fee review application, which the employer argued was premature because it had not been established that the cream was related to the work injury. However, the pharmacy argued that company waived its right to challenge the cream as unrelated because it did not seek a Utilization Review (UR).

After several appeals, the Commonwealth Court ruled that employers or insurers must make payments to providers for treatment within 30 days unless there is a dispute as to the reasonableness or necessity of the treatment, in which case the payer may seek a UR. The court vacated the decision and remanded for a fee review determination.

Widow and children to receive death benefits for fatal workplace stabbing – Pennsylvania

In JBS Holdings USA Inc. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, a worker was stabbed to death by a co-worker. While the company argued that the murder was related to a “personal animus” and not work-related, the court ruled there was no evidence of personal animosity. The ruling was upheld upon appeal.

Temporary worker who experienced horrific injuries fails to win tort lawsuit – Tennessee

In Henry v. CMBB LLC, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held in a 2-1 decision that the employee’s intentional tort lawsuit was barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Tennessee Workers Compensation Act. The temporary worker was assigned to work at a manufacturing facility and operated a 200-ton metal press, which contains a light curtain that prevents it from cycling when it detects a worker nearby. An operator had reported that the curtain was not working properly and one was on order, but the press remained in service.

The temp worker was operating the press when the machine cycled, crushing her arms, both of which were amputated below the elbow. She and her husband filed a lawsuit arguing the company intended to injure her because it was well aware of the danger but continued to operate the machine. The courts, however, noted that even if the employer was aware of the potential for injury, it does not mean the employer intended to injure the worker. Precedent has held that even egregious safety violations fail to show actual intent to injure and the exclusive remedy provision prevails. In Tennessee, the intentional tort exception is quite narrow.

Two years apart, injuries can stem from same accident – Virginia

In Merck & Co. v. Vincent, a worker injured his neck and arm in 2009. In 2011, he became dizzy and fell as a result of pain medication, seriously injuring his knee. The Court of Appeals upheld the Workers’ Compensation Commission ruling that the injuries arose from “the same accident” for purposes of determining whether he was permanently and totally disabled. The Virginia statute provides for an award of permanent total disability benefits to a worker who has suffered the functional loss of two limbs “in the same accident.”

The court noted the “compensable consequence” doctrine, which says that if an injury arises out of and in the course of employment, “every natural consequence that flows from the injury likewise arises out of the employment unless it is the result of an independent intervening cause attributable to claimant’s own intentional conduct.”

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