Category Archives: Courts

Alabama Court Strikes Down Anti-Worker Provisions Of State Workers’ Compensation Law

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

An Alabama trial-court level judge ruled the Alabama Workers Compensation Act was unconstitutional in a recent decision. Though the decision isn’t binding on a state level and it was recently stayed or delayed indefinitely, it is an important and interesting decision for many reasons.

The Alabama workers’ compensation statute was found to be unconstitutional because it capped benefits at $220 per week for permanent injuries and it limited attorney fees for plaintiff attorneys to 15 percent. Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Pat Ballard found that Alabama’s cap on permanent damages violated equal protection of the laws because it created two classes of workers without any rational basis because some workers were fairly compensated for permanent disability while others were not. Ballard also found that the attorney fee cap violated constitutional due process rights.

Ballard’s reasoning about equal protection and due process mirror recent state supreme court decisions in Oklahoma and Florida striking down anti-worker reforms to the workers’ compensation laws in those states. Florida struck down attorney fee caps for plaintiff’s attorney because they impaired the ability of injured workers to find counsel. Oklahoma struck down the so-called Oklahoma option because it impermissibly created two separate systems for workers’ compensation, one of which could make it almost impossible for workers to collect benefits.

While it is encouraging that courts are protecting the rights of injured workers, the decisions in Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama have all been driven by anti-worker legislation in those states. Unfortunately, that trend is continuing in 2017.  Possible Democratic presidential candidate and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through anti-worker reforms to New York’s workers’ compensation act.

The recent attack on workers’ compensation has been bi-partisan. A newly- elected Republican legislature in Iowa passed anti-worker workers’ compensation reforms which were signed into law by that state’s Republican governor. The Iowa reforms include a cruel measure that caps benefits for senior citizens who are injured on the job. That provision may be ripe for an equal protection challenge.

Relying on appellate courts to protect the rights of injured workers’ is a risky strategy. Workers compensation laws were passed by state legislatures in response to pressure from unions and other workers advocates during the early 20th century when appellate courts were generally hostile to employees. While it seems that trend may have reversed in the early 21st century, appellate judges certainly can’t be accused of pro-worker bias.

Good legislation also prevents the need for worker advocates to look to the judiciary to protect the rights of workers. Part of the reason, Judge Ballard ruled against the Alabama Workers Compensation Act was because the maximum benefit rate had not increased in 30 years. In Nebraska, our maximum benefit rate increases automatically under a formula determined by the Department of Labor. Nebraska’s current maximum rate is $817 per week for temporary and permanent disability.

Attorney Fees and Incentives in Workers’ Compensation

Today’s post comes from guest author Charlie Domer, from The Domer Law Firm.

Abe Lincoln said it best “The matter of fees is important far beyond the mere question of bread and butter involved.  Properly attended to, justice is done to both lawyer and client. . . when you lack interest in the case, the job will very likely lack the skill and diligence in the performance.”

Three states have recently addressed the issue of attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases, most recently in Alabama, where an attorney fee cap of 15% on already-low benefits was found unconstitutional. It took a judge in Alabama who had been a carpenter for 15 years and then a lawyer before he took the bench, to recognize that an attorney fee cap at 15% of a $220 weekly Permanent Partial Disability benefit would not provide sufficient incentive for attorneys to be involved in workers’ compensation claims for Permanent Partial Disability in Alabama, depriving injured workers of their constitutional rights.  Judge Pat Ballard gave the legislature in Alabama four months to cure the deficiencies in the Alabama Code.

Judge Ballard found persuasive the Florida Supreme Courts reasoning in Castellanos v. Next Door Company where the Court indicated the inflexible nature of Florida attorney fee statute made that law unconstitutional.  He also agreed with the reasoning of the Utah Supreme Court, which found its workers’ compensation attorney fee caps unconstitutional.

An attorney’s determination to take a workers’ compensation case has to do with both the merits of the case and potential for recovery of attorney fees.  In Wisconsin attorneys are not paid on any portion of the medical expenses and fees are capped at 20% of the Temporary Total and Permanent Partial Disability benefits obtained for the injured worker.  In Permanent and Total Disability claims, fees are capped at ten years of benefits.  (Routinely benefits that are further offset by the injured worker’s receipt of Social Security Disability and Long Term Disability benefits.)  As Abe Lincoln indicated long ago, “When you feel you are working for something, you are sure to do your work faithfully, and well.”  (Notes to the Ohio State Law School Graduating Class of 1858.)

Why an Obscure Securities Law Case Could Affect SSDI

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) cases are largely decided by administrative law judges (ALJs). A decision questioning the role of ALJs in another area of the law could cause some major complications for SSDI applicants and SSDI beneficiaries.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently set aside a conviction for securities fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) because the ALJ who decided the case should have been appointed under the Appointments Clause rather than hired by the SEC. The 10th Circuit’s decision directly conflicts with a recent decision made by the District of Columbia  Circuit Court of Appeals, which means the U.S. Supreme Court could take up the issue.

This matters to SSDI applicants, their attorneys and even present SSDI beneficiaries because the vast majority of administrative law judges, roughly 1,200 of 1,400, have been hired by the Social Security Administration to hear Social Security Disability appeals. Similar to ALJs from the SEC, ALJs who hear SSDI appeals are hired on merit and are federal employees.

If the U.S. Supreme Court followed the recent 10th Circuit decision and applied it to ALJs who heard Social Security Disability appeals, at least 1,200 ALJs would have to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. This could lead to further delays and uncertainty related to SSDI appeals. If the 10th Circuit decision were applied to SSDI judges, it is uncertain as to whether awards of disability would still be valid if they were made by unconstitutionally chosen ALJs. In 2014, in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, the Supreme Court held that the NLRB’s decision made by commissioners who were appointed by constitutionally invalid recess appointments was invalid.

The Social Security Administration has recently moved to abolish the treating physician rule in an effort to decrease claim payments. Uncertainty over whether the awards of SSDI benefits are constitutional would add additional hurdles to those needing SSDI benefits. If you are applying for Social Security Disability or thinking about it, contact an experienced attorney. Also, contact your lawmakers to express your concerns about the SSDI system to them.

Gorsuch, Chevron and Workplace Law

Judge Gorsuch

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Employers and their attorneys are widely hailing President Trump’s nomination of 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Part of the reason that management-side lawyers are praising Gorsuch is his position on Chevron deference. Gorsuch’s views on Chevron could affect how workplace laws are interpreted and how they apply to workers.

Chevron deference is a legal rule that a court will give the benefit of the doubt about the interpretation of the law to how the executive agency charged with enforcing that law understands the law. Gorsuch has criticized Chevron on separation of powers basis, stating that Chevron deference gives too much power to the executive branch at the expense of the legislative and judiciary branches. Recently, government agencies have been interpreting employment laws in a way that is more favorable toward employees. Recent rules issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act are a prime example.

Many workers who get hurt on the job are told that they must come back to work with no restrictions. Chevron deference could be a powerful legal tool for workers faced with such policies. The new EEOC regulations on the ADA outlaw 100-percent-healed policies or policies that require plaintiffs to return to work without restrictions. In the EEOC guidance on the issue, the EEOC cites Kaufman v. Peterson Health Care VII, LLC 769 F. 3d 958 (7th Cir. 2014) as an example of policies that they believe to be unlawful under ADAAA. This case represents a subtle but real shift from current 8th Circuit law as stated in Fjellestad v. Pizza Hut of America, 188 F. 3d 949, 951-952 (8th Cir. 1999) where the 8th Circuit joined other federal circuits that held that failure to engage in an interactive process in accommodating a disability was not per se discrimination, and that there was no duty to engage in the interactive process. The EEOC’s interpretations of the new regulations still require that a plaintiff be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

But as indicated by Kaufman, courts may be less likely to dismiss cases before trial, or in legal terminology, to grant summary judgment, on the issue of whether a plaintiff could perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation if the defendant does not engage in an interactive process or summarily decides that an employee should not be allowed to return without restrictions.

The fact that there is a split between regional appellate courts, a so-called circuit split, over “100 percent healed” policies increases the chances that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether 100-percent-healed policies violate the ADA. Another issue where there is a circuit split that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide is the legality of mandatory arbitration clauses in employment agreements.

Many workers unwittingly give up their rights to have employment-law disputes heard in court when they agree to mandatory arbitration clauses as a term of employment. In D.R. Horton Inc., 357 N.L.B. No 184 (2012) the National Labor Relations Board ruled that mandatory arbitration clauses prohibited Fair Labor Standards Act collective action cases because they interfered with protected concerted activity under 29 U.S.C. §157 and 29 U.S.C. § 158. In Lewis v. Epic Systems, 823 F. 3d 1147, 1154 (7th Cir. 2016), the 7th Circuit struck down a mandatory arbitration clause partly based on giving Chevron deference to the NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton. The 9th Circuit agreed with the 7th Circuit in Morris v. Ernst and Young, LLP, No 13-16599 (Aug. 22, 2016). Unfortunately for plaintiffs, the 8th Circuit disagreed with the D.R. Horton decision in Owen v. Bristol Care, 702 F. 3d 1050 (8th Cir. 2013).

If confirmed, Gorsuch would be unlikely to give much weight to the opinions of the EEOC or NLRB in interpreting employment laws. Chevron deference is an unpopular concept with pro-business conservatives. Recently, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation that, if enacted, would abolish Chevron deference.

Conversely, Chevron deference is a popular concept with progressive employee and civil-rights advocates, as it allowed the Obama administration to expand employee protections in the face of a hostile Congress. But with the advent of the Trump administration and his immigration policies, progressives have a newfound appreciation for separation of powers.

Also, employee advocates probably will not like many of the new rules and regulations issued by Trump appointees such as Labor Secretary nominee Larry Puzder. A prospective abolition of Chevron could be helpful to challenging rules made by a Trump administration. An example from the last Republican administration is instructive. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court in Long Island Care at Home Ltd. v. Coke, 551 U.S. 158 (2007) gave Chevron deference to Bush administration rules to exclude home health aides from coverage under the FLSA. It was nine years later that the rule was overturned, giving Chevron deference to Obama administration rules regarding home health aides and the FLSA.