Legal Corner

ADA
Lawsuit alleging wrongful termination because perceived-as disabled reinstated

In Paula E. Babb v. Maryville Anesthesiologists P.C., a nurse anesthesiologist contends that Tennessee-based Maryville Anesthesiologists P.C., fired her because it thought she was visually disabled. She acknowledges an eye condition that requires her to hold written records close to her eyes, but argues it does not inhibit her ability to read.

The company, however, says she was fired because of two serious errors that put patients at risk. But an email was circulated to staff saying that she was fired because she “has been having major issues with her eyesight and as of late, it has seemed to be getting even worse.”

The Sixth Circuit finds that the email and other evidence present a triable case of regarded-as disability discrimination under the ADA and reinstates the case.

EEOC disability suit settled for $2.65 million

Crossmark, a company that provides workers to dispense free food samples to shoppers, allegedly failed to provide a reasonable accommodation by not allowing its employees to sit for more than 10 minutes every two hours. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) noted some employees were permitted to sit as needed when they performed the same job while working directly for the retailers.

The firm agreed to pay $2.65 million and designate ADA coordinators to address accommodation requests, among other provisions.

Workers’ Compensation

Tort claim for lead poisoning barred by exclusive remedy – California

In an unpublished opinion, Deville v. Bloch, the company, Exide, was ordered to suspend operations in Vernon because plant operations were causing the discharge of illegal amounts of lead into the air, water, and soil. Before the plant’s closing, a long-term worker at the hazardous waste treatment and storage plant lost consciousness while cleaning one of the facility’s furnaces. More than three years later he sued, alleging unspecified injuries caused by exposure to lead and other hazardous chemicals.

The appellate court upheld the dismissal of the claim, agreeing workers’ comp exclusive remedy applied. The allegations that Exide knew the employees faced a risk of harm from exposure to lead and other chemicals were not enough to invoke the fraudulent concealment exception to workers’ compensation exclusivity.

Workers over 70 have five-year statutory limit on PTD benefits – Florida

In Crispin v. Orlando Rehabilitation Group, the 1st District Court of Appeals ruled that a worker over the age of 70 is statutorily limited to permanent total disability benefits for a calendar period of five years after she is determined to be permanently and totally disabled. According to the court, eligibility for PTD payments ends five years to the day after the worker is determined to be permanently and totally disabled.

Undocumented worker denied medical care for injury – Florida

In Hernandez v. Food Mkt. Corp., an appellate court upheld the ruling that an undocumented worker who sustained injuries in a work-related accident can be denied benefits on the basis that he used someone else’s Social Security Number (SSN) when completing an intake form at a medical provider. By so doing, the court noted the injured worker had offered a false or misleading statement to secure workers’ compensation benefits.

Pre-existing condition does not negate continuation of medical treatment – Florida

In Premier Community Healthcare Group v. Rivera, a divided appeals court ruled that a dental assistant who was injured while preventing a patient from falling, but had a previous medical condition related to a car accident, must continue to receive benefits. The employer and insurer initially accepted compensability of injuries to the low back and neck, but later denied claims for cervical injections and physical therapy when her medical history revealed that she had a prior motor vehicle accident and previous neck symptoms.

The carrier presented two doctors who testified that the workplace injury is not the major contributing cause of the need for medical treatment of the cervical spine. However, in a divided opinion, the court upheld the JCC’s opinion the worker’s doctor was more persuasive.

JCC may not ignore opinion of expert medical advisor – Florida

In Olvera v. Hernandez Constr. of SW Fla. Inc., although an Expert Medical Advisor (EMA) indicated in his report that a worker had not reached MMI because future surgery was required, a Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) found that the worker had reached MMI. An appellate court found that the JCC’s decision, which was made based on the EMA’s answer to one leading hypothetical question on cross-examination, was in error because the JCC cannot disregard the presumed correctness of an unequivocal EMA.

Civil suit can proceed in workplace parking lot shooting – Georgia

In Smith v. Camarena, the estate of a worker who was killed in a grocery store parking lot after finishing her shift filed a civil suit against her employer. The woman and a co-worker were approached by a masked gunman who demanded their purses. An assistant manager was driving by and called to the gunman and shots were exchanged and the woman was killed. While a trial court denied the suit based on the exclusive remedy of workers comp, the Court of Appeals said it could proceed.

Although it is undisputed that she had left work, the employer argued she was “within the period of her employment under the ingress/egress rule.” Noting the parking lot was owned by the store’s landlord and served several other stores, the appellate courts said there is a question of whether the location was part of the employer’s premises and a jury should decide if the shooting occurred in the course of employment.

TTD denied for failure to follow work restrictions – Georgia

In Burch v. STF Foods Inc., the Court of Appeals ruled that a restaurant worker, who had injured his back and had received written restrictions from the restaurant’s owner, was not entitled to temporary total disability benefits after being fired for failing to abide by the lifting restrictions. Despite the instructions, he continued to lift heavy items, received warnings, and suffered additional injuries to the back/shoulder area.

When he was fired for insubordination, he filed for workers comp and an administrative law judge (ALJ) found in his favor, finding his restrictions were related to his work injury. Upon appeal, the court found the ALJ had erred and that the worker failed to prove any loss of earning capacity was attributable to his compensable work injuries, but rather was due to subordination.

Case to watch: McDonalds’ employees in Chicago sue over workplace violence – Illinois

Seventeen Chicago-area workers filed suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County claiming that the “Experience of the Future” store renovations makes it easier for angry customers to leap over the counter and attack them. The suit claims that in the Chicago area, there are more than 20 calls every day to emergency services from McDonald’s stores and that the company ignores practices that could make the stores safer.

Drainage contractor found guilty of manslaughter in workers’ deaths – Massachusetts

Atlantic Drain Services of Blackstone had been cited by OSHA in 2007, 2012 and again in 2017 after two workers drowned when a trench collapsed. The company was fined $1.47 million in 2017. Three years later, Atlantic Drain owner Kevin Otto and his company were separately found guilty of two counts of manslaughter and one count of witness intimidation in Superior Court.

In addition to failing to use cave-in protection and placing employees in severe danger, it was alleged that the company attempted to mislead the investigation by falsifying documents, including sign-in sheets for excavation and trenching training, as well as workers’ signed acknowledgment of receiving personal safety equipment.

The owner faces up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

City agrees to pay workers comp, a wrongful termination claim, and hold open the possibility of a future asbestos-related claim – Michigan

The East Lansing City Council has agreed to pay a former wastewater treatment plant employee $125,000 to settle a workers’ compensation claim and a wrongful termination lawsuit. He alleged he was fired because he reported health and safety violations to state agencies and because he filed a workers’ compensation claim. He also claimed respiratory damage from asbestos and a mercury spill at the facility and the city agreed he could file a claim in the future if he is diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness.

No causal connection between tinnitus and work-related fight – Missouri

In Schlereth v. Aramark Uniform Servs., a state appellate court panel affirmed a Commission decision concluding that a supervisor’s tinnitus was not caused by a work-related brawl that resulted from the supervisor’s crude characterization of a subordinate’s work. Although he did sustain obvious injuries to the face and head, he did not seek benefits until three years later after he received social security benefits.

In spite of surgery complications, worker fails to prove medical causation of sinus cavity clot – Nebraska

In Homstad v. Block 21, LLC, a worker underwent knee surgery for a work-related injury and suffered a deep venous thrombosis (DVT) in his thigh, as well as a pulmonary embolism. Later, he contended that a blood clot in his sinus cavity was causally connected to the earlier injury and surgery. The medical experts were cautious, neither confirming or denying, the causation. Thus, an appellate court upheld the Workers’ Compensation Court decision that the worker had not met the burden of proof.

Workplace fire did not conclusively cause lung disease – Nebraska

In Pennington v. SpartanNash Co., a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed a Workers Compensation Court decision that a worker with lung disease failed to show that his illness was brought on by a workplace fire. He worked as a store manager for Michigan-based food distributor SpartanNash and put out a small fire in an unused walk-in freezer. Although he did not seek medical treatment at the time, a few days later he fainted and was referred to a pulmonologist, who diagnosed pneumonitis and ordered him to stop working. His treating physician wrote a letter stating that his pneumonitis and symptoms were “more likely than not” a result of the chemical and smoke exposure, and a second physician opined that his exposure on the day of the fire more likely than not resulted in his lung disease. The company’s medical expert said the cause could not be determined with certainty.

The court found that his medical experts failed to provide sufficient support for their opinions.

Construction company operator, foreperson, and engineer indicted for manslaughter in death of laborer following wall collapse – New York

Owners and managers of WSC Group LLC, a Sunset Park construction company, have been indicted on manslaughter, negligent homicide and workers’ compensation insurance fraud some 14 months after a wall collapsed and killed a welder at an excavation site in Brooklyn.

Worker employee, not independent contractor – North Carolina

In Macias v. BSI Associates Inc., a worker was injured while working for the Carolina Chimney Crew, settled the claim, and agreed not to work for the company in the future. The following year, the owner suggested the former employee start his own company, purchase the necessary insurance, and work as an independent contractor for him. His insurance indicated zero employees and he excluded himself from coverage.

The company furnished vehicles, tools, equipment and supplies, business cards, Carolina Chimney Crew clothing, and provided specific instructions on where he was to work and what work he was to perform each day. He resumed his work in almost identical fashion as when he was an employee and a few years later fell from a scaffold and fractured his spine.

While the claim for workers’ comp was denied by the company’s insurer based on his status as an independent contractor, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed an Industrial Commission decision holding that the injured man was an employee, not an independent contractor, and, therefore, entitled to workers compensation.

Definition of employer’s premises clarified in parking lot decision – Pennsylvania

In US Airways v. Workers Compensation Appeal Board, a 6 – 0 decision of the Supreme Court’s Western District in Pittsburgh affirmed a workers compensation judge’s finding that a flight attendant was in the course and scope of her work when she was injured. The flight attendant was injured after her shift ended while riding an airport shuttle bus to an employee parking lot. The City of Philadelphia, and not the airline, owned both the shuttle bus and the employee parking lot.

With the decision, the Court stood by its earlier Epler holding that the phrase “the employer’s premises” should be construed liberally to include any area that is integral to the employer’s business operations, including any reasonable means of ingress to or egress from the workplace.

Employee of staffing agency cannot sue borrowing employer – Pennsylvania

In Burrell v. Streamlight, an employee of a staffing agency fell while assigned to Streamlight, received comp benefits from the staffing agency, and filed a negligence suit against Streamlight. Streamlight argued it was acting as his employer at the time and, therefore, was immune from civil liability.

The appellate court stressed that the issue turned upon whether the borrowing employer had the right to control not only the work to be done by the borrowed employee but the manner of performing it. It found the evidence established that Streamlight was his employer.

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

HR Tip: Managers are key to culture issues – how to avoid a toxic workplace

In today’s competitive marketplace, it’s distressing to hear that one in two workers have seriously thought about leaving their current job. A recent report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture: How Culture Impacts the Workforce-and the Bottom Line, notes that many workers consider culture and managers to be closely connected, holding managers responsible for creating a toxic workplace. In fact, 76% of employees say their manager sets the culture of their workplace and 58 percent of employees who quit a job due to workplace culture say that their managers are the main reason they ultimately left.

More findings:

  • 1 in 3 say manager does not know how to lead them
  • 3 in 10 say manager does not encourage a culture of open and transparent communication
  • 1 in 4 dread going to work, don’t feel comfortable expressing their opinions, and don’t feel respected or valued
  • A breakdown in communication is perhaps the most common sign of a toxic atmosphere at work

The report notes that even if the culture is not toxic, but “average,” it’s not enough. Employees still think about leaving and aren’t likely to recommend the organization to a friend. Managers can build strong and positive workplaces by listening to employees, holding workers and leaders accountable for their actions, setting expectations, and clarifying information.

Workplace culture is a critical business asset and employees see the company through their immediate boss. Is the culture you have the culture you want? How well does the individual manager’s behavior reflect the organization’s core values? What steps are needed to keep values and actions aligned?

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

Early workplace injuries predictor of frequent filers

Workers injured in the first six months of their employment are more than twice as likely to have three or more lost-time injuries during their duration of employment than other workers, according to a recent study published in the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. For each year employed before the first lost-time injury, the probability of having three or more lost-time injuries decreased by 13%, according to the study.

The study included 7,609 lost-time claims at Johns Hopkins Health System and University from 1994 through 2017. The injuries occurred among 5,906 workers; 84% were health care workers, and the remainder were academic employees. Although only 49 workers (0.83%) had five or more claims, they accounted for 3.5% of claim costs, or $4.8 million. The workers in the study had an average length of employment of 15.7 years.

Other studies have shown that new employee risk of injury is higher than other workers. Earlier research from the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health (IWH) found that employees in their first month on the job have more than three times the risk for a lost-time injury than workers who have been at their job for more than a year.

Neither study delved into the issue of “why.” Common speculation is that training and mentorship were inadequate or that hiring practices are the root of the problem. It makes sense because newness is the common thread. Workers performing unfamiliar tasks in a new work environment with less knowledge and awareness are at a more significant risk regardless of their age, according to the IWH.

Yet, assumptions should not be made and each company must analyze their own data. Begin by looking at the data on the injuries incurred in the first six months of employment. Was the hiring process rushed or inadequate in anyway? Was there a post-offer physical exam?

Assess the effectiveness of training and acclimation to the job. Were new workers given real-life practice, a clear message about safety, site-specific information, allowed to start in low-risk situations and advance to higher-risk work? While people learn differently, the more they can perform the work, the better they become.

Review the incident investigations to look for commonalities – location, department, job function/procedure, equipment and so on. How effective was the return-to-work experience?

How you intervene depends on what you learn. It may be that you need to shore up your training program, implement a mentorship approach, or alert the supervisor to provide additional oversight so the employee works more safely. If there are “red flags” such as the injured worker immediately hiring a lawyer, conflict with supervisor or other workers, insufficient detail about injury/accident, no witnesses, failure to keep medical appointments, and so on, you should consult your attorney. In most cases, the injuries of new employees are legitimate, but new employees with fraud “red flags” require special attention.

The message to employers is that there is an association between early employment injuries and risks for multiple injuries. Repeat claims are costly. A thorough analysis is an opportunity to develop preventive measures or cut loose a potential serial offender.

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

The new overtime rule and workers’ compensation

The Labor Department estimates that the new overtime rule, which takes effect January 1, 2020, will affect 1.3 million workers. The new rule raises the minimum salary threshold from $455 per workweek to $684 per workweek. This means that salaried workers who earn less than $35,568 per year will be eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay if they work over 40 hours, up from the current threshold of $23,660. While the new rule updates the earnings thresholds necessary to exempt executive, administrative, or professional employees from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime pay requirements, it does not alter the white-collar exemptions’ duties tests.

Employers need to make decisions about the compensation packages of exempt employees who earn less than the new weekly threshold of $684, but more than the current threshold of $455, before year’s end. The options are to increase salaries to the new level, reclassify employees as non-exempt, and structure workloads to preclude overtime hours.

The rule also permits employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments paid at least annually to satisfy up to 10% of the standard salary level. In its FAQ, the DOL notes that, “if an employee does not earn enough in non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) in a given 52-week period to retain his or her exempt status, the Department permits a “catch-up” payment at the end of the 52-week period. The employer has one pay period to make up for the shortfall (up to 10 percent of the standard salary level for the preceding 52-week period). Any such catch-up payment will count only toward the prior 52-week period’s salary amount and not toward the salary amount in the 52-week period in which it was paid. If the employer chooses not to make the catch-up payment, the employee would be entitled to overtime pay for any overtime hours worked during the previous 52-week period.”

The rule also raises the salary threshold for the highly compensated employee exemption (HCE) from $100,000 to $107,432 per year, but it does not change how employers may use bonuses to meet the salary level component of the HCE test.

How will this affect workers’ compensation premiums?

While the premium calculation can be more complicated, this simple formula gives an idea of how it is done:

Payroll (per $100) x Classification Rate x Experience Modifier = Premium

What’s important is that in almost all states payroll (which is often referred to as the basis for premium) is actually remuneration, which is much more than payroll. Increasing salaries of exempt workers will increase premiums, based on the employee’s classification. However, the issue of non-exempt workers and increased payroll that results from overtime is more complicated. To understand how the new overtime rule will impact premium, you’ll need to know the rules for treating overtime pay in your state.

With the exception of four states (Pennsylvania, Delaware, Utah, and Nevada), overtime pay can be reduced to straight time when determining the workers’ comp premium. Many insurance companies define overtime pay as the wages paid at one-and-a-half times the employee’s hourly rate for overtime hours. So, in most states, if a worker makes $20/hr. and is paid $30/hr. for overtime, the company pays premium on the $20, but not the extra $10.

In Pennsylvania, Delaware, Utah, and Nevada, overtime pay is subject to premium and may be added during the annual comp audit process, if not properly projected in your payroll for the year. So, in the case above, the company pays premium on the full $30.

Next steps for employers

  1. Make decisions about the employees who are affected by the new overtime threshold.
  2. Clearly communicate to all employees the new rule. If employees are being reclassified, it is important not only for them, but for those who report to them, to understand why they are being reclassified. Be sensitive to the perception that changing from exempt to non-exempt can be viewed as a negative change in status. Individual meetings to reinforce that the change is based on regulations, not performance, can help.
  3. Evaluate your time tracking system and train reclassified employees in its use. An automated time tracking system is critical in ensuring accurate overtime pay.
  4. Assess your telecommuting policies and the ability to monitor hours worked, if telecommuters are being reclassified.
  5. Keep adequate records of overtime. In states that allow overtime exclusion for workers’ comp, if adequate records are not maintained, the overtime pay cannot be excluded from the total payroll and you must pay on the entire amount. If the rate of overtime varies, for example, time-and-a-half and double time, be sure the records are distinct, as the adjustment will differ. This information should be in a form that is easily determined by the auditor, summarized by classification on an annual basis.
  6. Keep an eye on your projected payroll for your workers’ comp policy. At the year-end of your policy, an audit will determine if you’ve underestimated payroll. To avoid year-end surprises, be as accurate as possible when projecting annual payroll.

It’s important to note that the new rule does not take precedence over more stringent state rules. Generally, businesses must comply with the law that provides the most protection for the employee. Many states have higher thresholds and additional criteria for exempt status than under federal law. Multi-state employers should look at compliance on a state-by-state basis.

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

HR Tip: Employees cannot decline FMLA leave even when a collective bargaining agreement says otherwise

In March 2019, the DOL issued an opinion letter that neither an employee nor an employer may decline FMLA leave when an eligible employee is absent for an FMLA-qualifying reason. The letter noted this is particularly true even if the employee wants the employer to delay the designation of FMLA leave.

Apparently, this created confusion in union environments where there is a collective bargaining agreement that allows the employee to use paid leave first and then use FMLA leave after paid leave is exhausted. In a new opinion letter , the DOL made it clear that an employer still may not delay designating paid leave as FMLA leave even if the delay otherwise complies with a collective bargaining agreement.

The bottom line is that in all cases once the employer has sufficient information to determine that an employee’s leave is covered by the FMLA, it must designate the leave as FMLA leave.

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

HR Tip: New FMLA forms available from DOL

The Family and Medical Leave (FMLA) certification forms and notices are now valid until Aug. 31, 2021. DOL didn’t make any substantive changes to the forms, other than the new expiration date. Here they are:

Notices

Certification forms

The DOL must submit its FMLA forms to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for approval every three years. OMB review is required to ensure the FMLA certification and notice process isn’t too bureaucratic.

While the forms aren’t mandatory, many employers use them. Some employers copy and paste the DOL form into their own form, replacing the DOL logo with their own.

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

HR Tip: SHRM benefit survey on popular perks30

aAccording to the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) 2018 Employee Benefits Survey the current low level of unemployment is driving employers to beef up their benefits to retain and recruit employees. More than two-thirds of the employers in the survey raised their benefit levels in the past 12 months. There were expanded offerings in:

  • Health-related benefits (up among 51 percent of respondents)
  • Wellness (44 percent)
  • Employee programs and services (39 percent) such as retirement savings and advice
  • Professional and career development benefits (32 percent)
  • Leave, family-friendly and flexible working benefits (each 28 percent)

The report details the types of increased benefit offerings in each category as well as trends that have stabilized or reversed. For example, under Wellness, it notes that substantial increases were seen in:

  • Company-organized fitness competitions/challenges (38 percent, up from 28 percent last year).
  • CPR/first aid training (54 percent, up from 47 percent).
  • Standing desks (53 percent, up from 44 percent).

“One sign that employers are targeting their benefit spending for maximum effectiveness: Since 2014, the share of organizations offering offsite fitness center memberships fell to 29 percent from 34 percent, while those that provide a subsidy/reimbursement for offsite fitness classes rose to 16 percent from 12 percent. Too often, people will join a gym but rarely go, employers found, while those who sign up for classes are likely to use them.”

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