Category Archives: Government

Medicaid Cuts Will Cause More Nursing Injuries

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

While efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid appear to have stalled for now, any successful effort to cut Medicaid will adversely impact workplace safety for nurses and nurse’s aides.

Studies by the National Institutes of Health show that reductions in Medicaid funding leads to less staffing at long term care facilities and that lower staffing leads to more injuries for nursing employees. Since most nurses and nurse’s aides are covered under state-based workers compensation laws the additional costs of work injuries from Medicaid cuts may not be fully accounted for on a federal level.

At least in Nebraska nursing employees have some ways to protect themselves when advocating for safer working conditions even if they do not belong to a union.

Nebraska has a whistleblower law that applies specifically to health care workers, including nurses. The benefit of this act is that it allows employees to recover for damages similar to what they could collect under the Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act, including front pay and possibly attorney fees, without having to exhaust administrative remedies. Additionally, health care workers would have four years to bring a suit under the health care whistleblowers law, rather than the much shorter and complicated statute of limitations under the Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act.

Nebraska has a broad general whistleblower law that allows employees to oppose unlawful conduct by their employers. Nebraska law requires that nursing homes to be adequately staffed. Federal law also requires that employers provide a workplace to be free of recognizable hazard. Inadequate staffing would certainly be deemed be a recognizable hazard in a nursing home. The only drawback to Nebraska’s whistleblower law is the short and potentially uncertain statute of limitations.

Nebraska law would also allow nurses reporting inadequate staffing to be protected from retaliation under a public policy claim that also has a four year statute of limitations.

Will The Supreme Court’s Attack On State Courts Affect Workers’ Compensation?

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

One of the biggest and least understood developments of the current session of the Supreme Court session is how the Supreme Court has undercut the power of state courts to decide cases. This development may also impact the traditionally state law centered world of workers’ compensation.

In Bristol Meyer-Squibb v. Superior Court the Supreme Court held that non-California residents could not join a class action against Bristol Meyer-Squibb in California state court. In Tyrell v. BNSF the Supreme Court held that North Dakota residents could not sue the BNSF in Montana state court in an FELA case.

Despite Bristol-Meyer and the BNSF having a substantial number of employees and doing a substantial amount of business in California and Montana respectively, the Supreme Court held that it would violate due process to subject defendants to litigation in those states. State court litigation should be limited to states where a defendant is incorporated, where they are headquartered or where the events in the case took place..

Bristol-Meyer and Tyrell both rely on the Daimler v. Bauman case that was decided in 2014. In her dissent in Daimler, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the effect of Daimler was “to shift the risk of loss from multinational corporations to the individuals harmed by their actions.” Essentially Sotomayor believes that the rule that a corporation can be sued in any state court where they have substantial contacts has been repealed. Sotomayor was the lone dissenter in both the Tyrell and Bristol Meyers case.

The constitutional basis for limiting state court jurisdiction is the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. The use of the due process clause to weaken the ability of states to regulate corporate conduct has echoes of the so-called Lochner era where state laws that impeded on contracts were overturned unless they were based on general police powers.

So-called forum shopping gets a bad rap from tort reformers. Terms like “judicial hellhole” have coined by pro-corporate legal advocacy groups. But the ability to pick a forum to  bring a legal case is inherent in a federal system like we have in the United States. Lawyers have a duty to bring cases in a forum where they think it is most favorable to their client. Corporate and management interests also engage in forum shopping. In November business interests persuaded a business-friendly federal judge in Texas to block enforcement of the so-called blacklist rule that would have prevented employers who violated workplace safety and fairness laws from receiving federal contracts.

Workers’ compensation laws were enacted during the Lochner era and were held to be constitutional because they were enacted under state police powers under the 10th Amendment. But the mere fact that workers’ compensation laws were enacted under 10th Amendment authority of the states does not mean corporate friendly federal courts can not find a way to strip states of jurisdiction over certain workers’ compensation claims. This is particularly true for workers who may be able to claim workers’ compensation benefits in multiple states.

In Magnolia Petroleum v. Hunt, the Supreme Court ruled that an employee who was injured in Texas but lived in Louisiana could not claim workers’ compensation in his home state of Louisiana because he had already accepted benefits in Texas. The court held that the Hunt could not collect benefits in Texas because of the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Justice Hugo Black’s dissent in the case that pointed out that the only reason that Hunt received workers compensation benefits in Texas was signing a form in the hospital after the accident. Black also forcibly denounced the idea that Hunt was double- collecting benefits in Texas and Louisiana for two reasons. First, Louisiana offset the benefits that Hunt received in Texas. Secondly, Black stated “the aggregate of the awards from both states, if added together, would be far less than the total loss suffered by respondent. The Texas allowance scarcely amounts to a “recovery” in the sense of giving full compensation for loss, and has been described by a Texas court to be “more in the nature of a pension than a liability for breach of contract, or damages intact.”

Black’s description of the benefits available to injured workers who could claim benefits in two states is as true as it is now as it was 73 years ago when Magnolia came out.

In Magnolia, Black also drew parallels between how the due process and full faith and credit clauses could be used to protect corporate interests.

“For more than half a century the power of the states to regulate their domestic economic affairs has been narrowly restricted by judicial interpretation of the federal Constitution. The chief weapon in the arsenal of restriction, only recently falling into disrepute because of overuse, is the due process clause. The full faith and credit clause, used today to serve the same purposes, is no better suited to control the freedom of the states.”

Three years later Magnolia was distinguished by the McCartin decision. In McCartin the Supreme Court allowed an employee to collect benefits in Wisconsin who had first collected benefits in Illinois to collect benefits in both states because unlike Texas, Illinois had no laws stating accepting workers’ compensation benefits in Illinois ruled out a claimant from receiving benefits in another state.

In 1980, the Supreme Court applied McCartin in Thomas v. Washington Gas and Light to rule that an injured employee could collect benefits in Washington D.C. and Virginia.

But the decision in Thomas was far from the enthusiastic endorsement of multi-jurisdiction workers’ compensation claims voiced by Justice Black in his dissent in Magnolia. Three concurring Justices criticized McCartin but upheld the award of benefits to Thomas based on the legal doctrine of stare decisis. Two justices, including William Rehnquist, dissented ruling that Magnolia should still govern multi-jurisdictional claims. Current Chief Justice John Roberts clerked for Rehnquist and holds a great deal of respect and affection for his former boss.

Considering how eager the majority of the Supreme Court is to limit the jurisdiction of state courts, I would be very concerned if the constitutional of multi-jurisdictional workers compensation claims were reviewed by the Roberts’ court.

Trump Dumps Workplace Safety

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

When FBI Director James Comey calls President Trump a liar, the world takes notice, but when Trump lies about workplace safety, the world takes little notice.  Trump’s administration has recently provided significant “relaxation” in the government’s approach to occupational safety.  The administration recently delayed action on a rule that would require the employer to electronically report workplace injuries so they can be posted for the public.  OSHA has also put off enforcement of an Obama-era standard for silica, a mineral linked to a disabling lung disease and cancer.  I’ve dealt with many silica exposure claims in Wisconsin particularly coming from the Kohler Corporation in Kohler, Wisconsin where silica is a necessary ingredient in many bathroom fixture manufacturing processes.  The administration has also proposed changes in beryllium exposure limits.  After 40 years of development a new rule under the Obama administration was set to lower workplace exposure to beryllium a mineral linked to a lung disease estimated to kill 100 people annually.  The nation’s largest beryllium producer had agreed to back the new restrictions.  A few weeks ago as the rule was going into effect the new administration proposed changes that many expect may exempt major industries from this tougher standard. 

When asked about the Trump administration’s approach to workplace safety a White House spokesman said “The President and his administration care very much about worker safety…”  Yet another lie.  See also Under Trump, Worker Protections Are Viewed With New Skepticism

Trump’s Budget Cuts and Social Security Disability: Is “Fraud Suspicion” Underlying the Cuts?

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

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney echoed the mantra of many conservative Republicans who suspect that folks who are Social Security Disability recipients are fraudulent.  “If you are on disability insurance and you’re not supposed to be, you are not truly disabled, we need you to go back to work.”  This conservative trope reflects, without any evidence to substantiate it, the same kind of misinformation about employee fraud that pervades perceptions of workers’ compensation fraud. 

As I have often written about in the past, the public’s perception of injured individuals (whether collecting workers’ compensation or Social Security Disability benefits) is vastly overinflated.  The statistics indicate only about one-sixth of one percent of injured workers in Wisconsin are fraudulent.  That’s about 2 in 10,000.

The Trump administration budget proposed up to $64 billion in cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance expenditures, directly contradicting Trump’s campaign promises not to cut Social Security.  The cuts stem mostly from new program rules and processes, and requirements for mandatory participation by program applicants to move disabled beneficiaries from SSDI to work.

While returning to work is always a laudable goal (for both workers’ compensation and Social Security Disability), the last eight times that budget proposals have initiated programs to promote return to work “none of the findings reported to date show they would likely lead to a substantial reduction in case load sizes.”  http://www.researchondisability.org/docs/default-document-library/ssa-back-to-work-06-2012.pdf?sfvrsn=2

Through their contributions to Social Security, workers earn a measure of protection against disability retirement and death.  (Disability insurance protects a worker against loss of earnings due to a significant work limiting impairment, and workers earn this protection by having worked and contributed to Social Security.)  Many of my work-injured employees ultimately end up on Social Security Disability and this protection is particularly important to older Americans.  Most people receiving Social Security Disability benefits are in their 50s or early 60s and most had only unskilled or semi-skilled jobs.  Without a college degree, benefits are not significant (averaging about $1,200 per month).  However, over half of Social Security beneficiaries rely on these benefits for 75% or more of their total income. 

The proposed budget cuts to Social Security are another slap in the face to injured workers.

Portability, The Gig Economy And Workers Compensation

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

Changing employment laws to encourage so-called “portable benefits” is an idea that goes hand in hand with finding new ways to classify gig economy workers. These proposals are being pushed in a  growing number of states. These proposals also enjoy support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress. These proposals could also radically alter workers’ compensation in the United States.

The idea of third classification of worker between employee and independent contractor is to give so-called “gig economy” workers some protections and benefits without employers having to bear the full costs of employment – including unemployment, workers’ compensation and health insurance. Sometimes this third class of workers is described as “dependent contractors.

Portable benefits are usually discussed in the context of contractors because traditionally benefits such as unemployment, workers’ compensation and health insurance have been provided by employers. So-called portable benefits, are detached from employers. The Affordable Care Act increased portability of health insurance benefits through the use of exchanges Portability of health insurance was touted as a way to help create new businesses because potential entrepreneurs were not tied to an employer for health insurance.

The idea of portable benefits and a new classification for gig employers is also touted as a way to reduce litigation against companies such as Uber for how they classify employees. But former National Labor Relations Board member Craig Becker pointed out that creating a new class of workers may actually create more litigation when employers try to re-classify employee as dependent contractors. Becker and others pointed out that this is what happened in Italy when Italy created a third class of worker that was neither employee nor independent contractor.

Becker and others point out that the drive to create a new class of workers is being driven by tech companies such as Uber as a way of reducing labor costs. The real risks of creating a new classification of workers is shared even by some who promote the sharing or gig economy. Gene Zaino, founder and CEO of MBO Partners, a firm that provides services to independent workers, stated that any new classification of independent workers should only include workers who earn more than $50 per hour. Under such a scheme lower-paid workers would still retain the benefits and protections of the employment relationship.

Though states are pondering portability and dependent contractor laws, there is a push for federal legislation so that laws can remain uniform across the country. Any federal push for portable benefits for so-called independent workers would clash with state-based workers’ compensation laws. Workers’ compensation is traditionally a state law concern because when workers’ compensation laws were enacted the power of the federal government to implement laws regarding workplace safety were limited. During the New Deal-era, that interpretation of the interstate commerce clause changed to allow broad regulation of the workplace.

Advocates for state-based workers’ compensation laws likely have little constitutional grounds to overturn any federal legislation that would substitute “portable benefits” for so-called “independent workers” for state-based workers’ compensation benefits. Some critics who argue, correctly, that many state-based laws inadequately compensate injured workers could also be open to or even welcome a federal substitute for  insufficient state workers’ compensation laws.

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.)

Theodore Roosevelt Pushed For Protection Of Workers

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

Workers’ Compensation benefits are often confusing and seemingly unfair at first glance to many of my clients. As a result, I often find myself explaining to these clients how we, as a country, got to where we are with workers’ compensation laws and why the benefits are more limited than other civil lawsuits.

In explaining work comp laws, I usually give a brief description of the work comp system that was first developed in the early 20th century and a description of the “Grand Bargain”, the premise that employers pay for some benefits of their injured employees in exchange that the employee cannot sue that employer for negligence in civil court.

I, and many scholars, could go on and on about the history of the Grand Bargain and how it was strengthened/reworked in the 1970’s. Also, scholars can (and have), go on about the recent “reform” to workers’ compensation laws that have eroded workers’ rights in domino-fashion in many states by anti-worker legislation.

Nevertheless, I think the most poignant description of why we need to protect workers, and continue to protect workers, is this quote from our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, in calling for further reform of laws that Congress passed for employers’ liability laws:

In spite of all precautions exercised by employers there are unavoidable accidents and even deaths involved in nearly every line of business connected with the mechanic arts. This inevitable sacrifice of life may be reduced to a minimum, but it can not be completely eliminated. It is a great social injustice to compel the employee, or rather the family of the killed or disabled victim, to bear the entire burden of such an inevitable sacrifice. In other words, society shirks its duty by laying the whole cost on the victim, whereas the injury comes from what may be called the legitimate risks of the trade. Compensation for accidents or deaths due in any line of industry to the actual conditions under which that industry is carried on, should be paid by that portion of the community for the benefit of which the industry is carried on–that is, by those who profit by the industry. If the entire trade risk is placed upon the employer he will promptly and properly add it to the legitimate cost of production and assess it proportionately upon the consumers of his commodity. It is therefore clear to my mind that the law should place this entire “risk of a trade” upon the employer. Neither the Federal law, nor, as far as I am informed, the State laws dealing with the question of employers’ liability are sufficiently thorogoing.

— Theodore Roosevelt: Sixth Annual Message, December 3, 1996.