Category Archives: Workers’ Compensation

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Age Discrimination Claims in Workers’ Compensation Settlements?

Today’s post comes from guest author Anthony L. Lucas, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

When an employee settles a workers’ compensation claim, the employer often wants to terminate the employee and is cautious because of potential age discrimination. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. 621 et seq. (2015), prohibits companies with 20 or more employees from discriminating against a person (40 years of age or older) because of his or her age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training.

An individual who has been discriminated against because of his or her age may be entitled to back pay, reinstatement, hiring, promotion, front pay, liquidated damages, and court costs and attorney fees.

To avoid potential discrimination claims after a workers’ compensation settlement, the employer often seeks an ADEA waiver at the same time. For an ADEA waiver to be enforceable, it must:

  • Be in writing and understandable;

  • Specifically refer to ADEA rights or claims;

  • Not waive an individual’s future rights or claims;

  • Be in exchange for valuable consideration in addition to anything of value to which the individuals is already entitled;

  • Advise the individual to consult with an attorney before signing the waiver;

  • Provide the individual with a certain amount of time to consider the agreement:

    • 21 days for individual agreements

    • 45 days for group waiver agreements

    • A “reasonable” amount of time for settlements of ADEA claims

  • Provide a period of at least 7 days following the execution of the agreement, in which the agreement is not effective or enforceable, in which the individual may revoke the agreement.

Some termination agreements may not be enforceable, and the individual may have a valid claim to pursue under the ADEA.

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Finding A Way Forward: How I Am Greeting The New Year With Optimism

Today’s post comes from guest author Catherine Stanton, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

I recently saw a quote that said “we are all just a car crash, a diagnosis, an unexpected phone call, a newfound love, or a broken heart away from becoming a completely different person. How beautifully fragile are we that so many things can take but a moment to alter who we are for forever”.   

During this holiday season, many of us will get together with our families and friends to celebrate our blessings but never expect that in the blink of an eye our lives can change dramatically. A very good friend of mine was celebrating Thanksgiving with her family when a pot of boiling water fell onto her and she suffered severe burns. After spending nine days in the Burn Center and in weeks of excruciating pain, she is living proof that there are no guarantees in life.  

A recent report by Fox News USA shows that unintentional shootings spike during the holidays and are more likely to occur than at any other time of the year due to a number of factors, including increased use of alcohol, holiday gifts of firearms, and children and teens being home from school with more free time. Many of us now rely on online shopping for our holiday gifts, which increases the amount of delivery vehicles on the road. Car crashes spike, as the December holiday season is one of the busiest travel times of the years. Factor in weather that does not always cooperate, and impaired drivers on the road as a result of holiday gatherings, and it is a recipe for disaster. Those who drive for a living are at an increased risk of injury or even death. 

Those who work in the retail industry are not immune from increased risk of injury either. Many of us won’t forget the Black Friday stampede in 2008 when a worker was trampled to death in a Long Island Walmart. In response to that tragedy, the company was fined, they agreed to adopt new crowd management techniques, and  the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued Crowd Management Safety Guidelines for retailers. The stress of the holidays can cause depression, less sleep, and financial woes that can translate into violence. OSHA notes that workplace violence has remained among the top four causes of occupational death. 

But the promise of tomorrow brings optimism. As we embark on a brand new year, many of us will feel a sense of relief as 2016 was a year filled with turmoil. The presidential election was polarizing for many Americans. Friends became enemies and family members would not speak to one other. Many of us will look to the new year with a sense of a new beginning – a chance to have a fresh start, a renewal of sorts. Many of us will make resolutions to lose weight, to end a bad habit, to become a better parent, spouse or friend. Many will donate to charities. Despite our differences and shortcomings, Americans are among the most charitable nation in the world. According to Giving USA’s annual report in 2015, Americans gave an estimated $358 billion to charity the prior year. There are so many things we can do to improve our lives and the lives of those in our community and our nation. The list of possibilities is endless. For those of us who represent injured workers, we resolve to make workplaces safer and ensure that medical and indemnity benefits are available in the future. Wishing you all Peace, Love, and Good Health in the upcoming year.

 

Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy  Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.

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Chemical Exposure in Chicken Plants

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

Several members of Congress have written to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell regarding the danger of the chemical PAA, which is used to sanitize chickens in poultry plants.

According to The Pump Handle blog written by occupational health expert Celeste Monforton, the increase in the use of PAA is linked to the Department of Agriculture’s “modernized inspection” system. Though meatpacking is well known for the prevalence of musculoskeletal injuries, chemical exposure is a less well-known, but similarly serious hazard, to meatpacking workers, which has been recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The hazards of chemical exposure are not limited to meat-processing workers. Chemical exposure fatalities are too common in rural America. Recently, a worker on an industrial cleaning crew in Beatrice, Nebraska, was killed from inhaling industrial cleaning chemicals. In October, a resident of northeast Nebraska was killed after inhaling chemicals from a leak in anhydrous ammonia pipeline. That same month, 125 residents of Atchison, Kansas, sought treatment for inhalation of chlorine gas from an explosion at a distiller.

While chemical exposure can often result in sudden death, ongoing exposure to chemicals can also create injuries that may not be apparent for years after the exposure. Unfortunately, Nebraska limits the ability of workers to recover for such injuries.

The letter about the hazards of PAA was written to outgoing cabinet members. The new Trump administration is expected to have a less-aggressive approach toward regulating the workplace. Hopefully the new administration will take the threat posed by hazardous chemicals in the workplace seriously.

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Dollar Tree Store Cited and Fined for Willfully Exposing Workers to Safety Hazards

Today’s post comes from guest author Kit Case, from Causey Law Firm.

Note: A quick Google search led me to Glassdoor’s page covering Dollar Tree stores.  Many photos, mostly posted by managers and bemoaning their impossible working conditions, clearly show that the problem identified in Washington is widespread. The caption for the above photo reads “3,000 cartons in per week…” – kc

Dollar Tree Stores Inc., faces a $145,200 fine for workplace safety violations that knowingly put workers at risk.

The Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) recently cited the Virginia-based employer after an inspection at its Aberdeen store found serious, repeat safety hazards.

The company was cited for two willful safety violations, each with the maximum legal penalty of $70,000. Dollar Tree also received a $5,200 fine for a repeat-serious violation. The employer was previously cited for the same violations at its Chehalis location.

The first willful violation was for storing merchandise in a way that created a serious hazard. The inspection found the storage room was a crowded jumble of stacked boxes, bundles and containers that weren’t secured and could topple over at any moment. The haphazard stacks stood as high as nine feet, with heavy boxes piled on top of light ones. Some were leaning due to collapsed boxes or crushed corners.

Improperly stored merchandise can fall on employees causing serious injuries including contusions, broken bones, concussions or even death if the boxes cause an employee to fall and strike their head on the floor. Additionally, lifting heavy boxes into nine-foot stacks is likely to cause strains and sprains or serious back injuries.

The second willful violation cited was for not ensuring that exit routes were free of obstructions. At the time of the inspection, several aisles and passageways were blocked with merchandise. Employees did not have clear paths to emergency exits, and a doorway with two swinging doors couldn’t be exited because it was obstructed by stacks of merchandise or carts full of products.

In addition, there were hazardous products stored in the area, including helium cylinders that are explosive when heated, lighters, and plastic merchandise that would emit toxic fumes in a fire, increasing the danger to employees.

Dollar Tree was cited for a repeat-serious violation for not installing protective guarding or covers over light fixtures that could be struck and broken by the stacked merchandise. Breakage of overhead bulbs is likely to cause eye injuries or cuts from falling glass.

A serious violation exists in a workplace if there is a substantial probability that worker death or serious physical harm could result from a hazardous condition. A willful violation can be issued when L&I has evidence of plain indifference, a substitution of judgment or an intentional disregard to a hazard or rule.

The employer had 15 business days to appeal the citation.

Penalty money paid as a result of a citation is placed in the workers’ compensation supplemental pension fund, helping injured workers and families of those who have died on the job.

Photo credit: Glassdoor submission

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The High Cost of Fat

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

We have reported regularly on the impact of obesity on workers’ compensation (see WFW October 2005 “Diabetes and Work Injuries” Alan B. King, M.D. and WFW Winter 2009 “The Rising Impact of Obesity on Workers’ Compensation” book review).

A recent study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, in September 2016 reported that obese and overweight workers are more likely to result in higher costs related to workers’ compensation claims, especially for major injuries.

In a study analyzing 2,300 workers in Louisiana, Dr. Edward Bernacki of the University of Texas—Austin found that workers’ compensation costs and outcomes for obese workers (defined as a Body Mass Index of 30 or higher) incurred higher costs related to their workers’ compensation claim. This study noted that after three years about 10% of claims for significant injuries were still open, meaning the worker had not yet returned to work. Obesity and overweight did not play a role in the delayed return to work. However, for workers with major injuries, overweight was associated with higher workers’ compensation costs. In the group with the higher Body Mass Index, costs averaged about $470,000 for obese workers, $270,000 for overweight workers compared to $180,000 for normal weight workers (with a Body Mass Index between 25 and 30). The study made adjustments for other factors including the high cost of spinal surgeries and injections and, after making the adjustment for these factors, obese or overweight workers with major injuries were twice as likely to incur costs of $100,000 or more. Significantly, Body Mass Index had no effect at all on costs for closed claims or less severe injuries.

Previous studies (including a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2015 linked obesity to a higher rate of workplace injuries and a longer time off. However, the cost effects were not studied until this recent assessment. The new results indicate obesity is a significant risk factor for higher costs in major workers’ compensation injuries.

One significant finding in the study was that more than three-fourths of the workers’ compensation claimants were overweight or obese. Further studies are planned. Previous studies include those from the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Inc. (NCCI) “How Obesity Increases the Risk of Disabling Workplace InjuriesEditor’s Note:  According to most studies, there is a strong correlation between Body Mass Index and injuries such as ankle fracture severity and increase risk of osteoarthritis. For workers’ compensation practitioners, one wonders whether these studies are a prelude to an assault on the “as is” doctrine. Each of us in our own practice can recognize some of the wide-ranging effects in costs of obesity, from special procedures for hospital treatment of obese patients such as open MRIs and more extensive surgical procedures to a reduced fuel economy in commercial vehicles due to fat drivers. Additionally, the cost of treatment for obese patients with work-related injuries increases the work-related injury potential to medical staff (lifting, transferring, etc.). Increasing admissions of severely obese patients leads to a corresponding increase in medical workplace injuries related to lifting and maneuvering obese patients. Workers’ compensation practitioners may see obesity as yet another “pre-existing condition” to surmount in future causation and extent of disability battles.

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Why Due Process Matters in Workers’ Compensation

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

Two recent decisions from the state supreme courts in Oklahoma and Florida point out that how an injured worker gets workers’ compensation benefits is as important as how much an employee can receive in benefits for a work injury. In the parlance of constitutional law, the how a worker receives benefits is a termed “due process.”

Oklahoma – In Vasquez v. Dillard’s, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found the so-called “Oklahoma option” violated the equal protection clause of the state’s constitution. The Oklahoma option allowed employers to create their own workers’ compensation benefit plans under the Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act (OEIBA) so long as they offered the same benefits as under the state workers’ compensation program. The problem that the Oklahoma Supreme Court had with “Oklahoma option” was that employers were allowed to design plans with procedures that made it more difficult for injured workers to collect benefits than if they were in the state system. In essence, the Oklahoma State Legislature had created separate but unequal workers’ compensation systems for employees injured on the job in that state, which was a violation of the equal-protection clause of the state constitution. But the deeper reason why the Oklahoma option was overturned was that it denied due process to workers who were covered under the OEIBA.

Florida – In Castellanos v. Next Door Company, the Florida Supreme Court struck down attorney fee limits in workers’ compensation cases on due process grounds under the U.S. and Florida constitutions. The Florida court found that fee caps deterred employees from bringing claims because they would be unable to find attorneys. The court also found that fee caps encouraged employers to wrongfully deny claims because workers would be unable to find lawyers to challenge denied claims. Though Castellanos wasn’t an equal protection case like Vasquez, the Florida court pointed out that employers faced no limits on how much they paid their attorneys. Fee caps for employees only created a situation where employees and employers had unequal protections under Florida’s workers’ compensation law.

Vasquez and Castellanos challenged and overturned state laws. But there are other ways for employees to challenge unfair denials of workers’ compensation benefits besides overturning state laws. In the Brown v. Cassens Transportation cases, a group of injured workers in Michigan used a civil RICO statute (anti-racketeering law) to challenge how their employer, the employer’s claims administrator, and a defense medical examiner worked together to undermine their workers’ compensation claims. In Brown, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that since employees gave up their right to a tort suit under Michigan law to receive certain workers’ compensation benefits, injured workers had a constitutionally protected property interest in both the receipt of workers’ compensation benefits and their claims for workers’ compensation benefits and that employer had conspired unlawfully to deny those benefits.

The court in Brown also recognized that workers’ compensation was the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries in Michigan, which is another reason why workers’ compensation benefits were constitutionally protected. The state supreme courts in Florida and Oklahoma also cited the exclusive remedy provisions of their state workers’ compensation acts to support their findings that state laws violated due process and equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitution.

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Removing The Safety Net: A National Trend Of Benefit Reductions For Injured Workers

Today’s post comes from guest author Catherine Stanton, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

Benefits for injured workers continue to be under attack throughout the country. In New York, there have been a number of changes in the last decade, all in the name of reform. These reforms were encouraging at first as they increased the weekly benefits for some higher wage-earning injured workers for the first time in decades. They also created medical treatment guidelines under the guise of allowing injured workers to obtain pre-approval on certain medical treatments and procedures. 

Unfortunately, the changes also resulted in reduction of benefits for many injured workers. Monetary benefits were capped, so injured workers deemed partially disabled could only receive a certain number of weeks of benefits regardless of their ability to return to their pre-injury jobs. The determination of the degree of disability has become a battle involving multiple, lengthy depositions of medical witnesses where the outcome is how long injured workers get wage replacement or whether they receive lifetime benefits. The criteria is not whether injured workers can return to their prior employment, but whether they are capable of performing any work at all, regardless of their past job experience or education. The battle is not limited to the amount of weeks of benefits injured workers can receive, however. The medical treatment guidelines, touted as getting injured workers prompt medical treatment, discounts the fact that if the requested treatment is not listed within the guidelines, it is denied and the burden is placed upon injured workers and their treating doctors to prove the requested treatment is necessary.

Other changes designed to cut administrative costs and court personnel include reducing the number of hearings held, thereby denying injured workers due process. There also has been a reduction in the number of presiding judges, and in many hearing locations the judges are not even at the site but are conducting hearings through video conferencing. At the end of October, the Board announced a new procedure authorizing the insurance carrier to request a hearing on whether injured workers should be weaned off of opioids that are used by many medical providers to treat chronic pain. While everyone would agree that the misuse of prescription pain medication is an epidemic in this country, many question whether the insurance industry really has the injured workers’ best interest at heart.    

As an attorney who has represented injured workers for more than 26 years, I have seen many workers successfully transition from injured worker back into the labor market. It is very encouraging to note that for many people the system has worked. They receive their treatment, which may involve physical therapy, surgery, pain management, prescription therapy, or whatever else their treating physician recommends. They are paid a portion of their prior income and after a period of convalescence, they are able to return to work. Some injured workers, however, are not so lucky. The decisions about what happens to those unable to work have been left to those who seem to care more about business and insurance industry profits. 

Just about one year ago, 14 people were killed and 22 more injured when ISIS-inspired terrorists went on a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California. The nation and the world were horrified to hear about this tragedy and the story was in the news for many weeks. Now a year has gone by and many of the survivors have complained about treatment being denied and prescription medication being cut off.  While many injuries happen quietly without the headlines seen in the California attack, there are many similarities. It seems that when an initial injury occurs, there are many good protections and benefits in place. However, as time goes on and costs increase, injured workers are looked upon as enemies to defeat or to forget about. Unfortunately for injured workers and their families, they don’t have this luxury and they don’t have the means to fight.

Most people don’t think it will ever happen to them. That is what most of my clients have thought as well.

 

Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717. 

 

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The Cancer Presumption in Workers’ Compensation

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

What is a legal presumption? 

Can a legal presumption be rebutted by sufficient contrary evidence?

Wisconsin workers’ compensation law contains many presumptions. For example, for firefighters, it is presumed that if a firefighter has cancer, the cancer is employment-related. The Statute applies to any State, County, or Municipal firefighter who has worked for ten years with at least two-thirds of the working hours as a firefighter who has cancer of the skin, breast, central nervous system, or lymphatic, digestive, hematological, urinary, skeletal, oral, or reproductive systems. For that firefighter whose disability or death is caused by cancer, the cancer diagnosis is presumptive evidence that the cancer was caused by employment. However, no presumption exists for firefighters who smoke cigarettes or use tobacco products for claims after January 2001. (Wis. Stat. §891.455 Presumption of Employment Connected Disease: Cancer)

Other presumptions in Wisconsin law include a presumption that a youthful worker (under age 27) is presumed to be able to earn the maximum wage rate by the time he reaches age 27, for purposes of Permanent Partial Disability, disfigurement, or death. For example, a McDonalds burger-flipper earning $10 per hour who has a severe burn is presumed (instead of the $200 or $300 he actually earns per week) to be earning $1,400 per week under the Youthful Age Presumption. Evidence of the worker’s likely inability to earn the maximum wage (due to cognitive or academic deficiency or similar lower earning work history) can be used to rebut the presumption and therefore limit the maximum Permanent Partial Disability or disfigurement award.

In a recent cancer case, the Pennsylvania workers’ compensation board found a firefighter cannot receive workers’ compensation benefits for prostate cancer because he failed to show his cancer was work-related despite a statutory presumption for firefighters. The firefighter began working for the City of Philadelphia in the 1970s and retired in 2006 after a diagnosis of prostate cancer. He filed a workers’ compensation claim saying his cancer stemmed from carcinogens he was exposed to while working as a firefighter, such as diesel fumes from fire trucks, second hand tobacco smoke from co-workers, and smoke from burning debris he encountered while fighting fires. Note he also acknowledged he smoked an average of a half pack of cigarettes daily since the 1960s. His doctor’s testimony that his carcinogen exposure caused the prostate cancer was rebutted by the City’s physician indicating that prostate cancer is typically more of a “disease of aging than it is of external influence.” The Judge, in denying the claim, noted “Any elevated risks for prostate cancer among firefighters might also be explained by other factors, such as detection bias, ethnicity and geography.”

The cancer presumption in Wisconsin (for non-smoking firefighters) would be more difficult to rebut, but factors such as family history may prove the “other evidence” necessary to rebut the presumption.