Category Archives: retaliation

Pro/con: Workers’ compensation retaliation as a jury question

Posted on by

Oklahoma rejected a 7th Amendment challenge to their workers’ compensation retaliation law

The Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to Oklahoma’s workers compensation retaliation statute based in part on the fact the statute doesn’t provide for trial by jury.

Workers compensation retaliation is a common law tort in Nebraska that provides for a trial by jury in a court of general jurisdiction. I believe there are upsides and downsides of making workers compensation retaliation cases tried to juries in a court of general jurisdiction rather than tried in a workers compensation court of limited jurisdiction.

I see some procedural advantages to trying workers’ compensation retaliation cases within the workers’ compensation court, but in substance I think it is better to try these cases in courts of general jurisdiction.

Here are the upsides of trying workers compensation retaliation cases to juries in courts of general jurisdiction.

1. Unlimited damages — Jury verdicts generally aren’t capped. There have been recent seven figure verdicts in workers compensation retaliation cases in Alabama and California. Workers compensation limits damages but those damages are capped with the understanding that fault isn’t relevant to getting benefits. Retaliation is clearly a matter of fault, so it should follow that damages should be unlimited in retaliation cases.

2.  Bringing other causes of action — Workers compensation laws limit the jurisdiction of workers compensation courts. So even if a workers’ compensation court can adjudicate a workers’ compensation retaliation case, it doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear an FMLA, ADA or whistleblower claims that often arise along with a workers’ compensation retaliation case.  Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation retaliation statute was passed in 1976. The ADA and FMLA were passed in the early 1990s before those laws went into effect. I would imagine states with workers’ compensation retaliation by statute have run into similar conflicts.

Another related drawback for a plaintiff is res judicata. An employee forced to try a workers’ compensation retaliation case in a workers’ compensation court, could be unable to bring a related ADA or FMLA claim in a court of general jurisdiction if they lost their workers compensation retaliation claim.

Advantage of trying workers compensation retaliation cases in workers compensation courts.

1. Less motion practice — Time consuming summary judgment motions are the bane of the existence of lawyers who represent employees. Statistically most employment law cases end on summary judgment.

Summary judgment is used a lot less in workers compensation. In Nebraska the judges discourage summary judgment because of the short time it takes to bring a case to trial and because of the extra work required in hearing what amounts to a trial on paper. My impression from listening to judges in other states is that they would agree with their colleagues in Nebraska.

2. Less risk of arbitration — More employers, encouraged by recent Supreme Court decisions, have forced employees to have private arbitrators rather than courts decide employment law disputes. But cases brought in an administrative agency are exempted from arbitration clauses. Workers compensation cases can be decided within the judicial and executive branch. They are also usually not jury trials. In short, it would be harder to force a workers’ compensation retaliation case into arbitration if it is heard within a workers’ compensation court.

 3. Simpler and more certain procedure — Workers’ compensation courts generally have simplified rules of evidence and procedure that is supposed to reduce the cost of litigation. Since workers’ compensation courts are generally tried to single judges instead of jurors, it would be easier to predict how they would decide a case.

Though workers’ compensation judges in Nebraska can’t adjudicate retaliation cases, reported and unreported cases would indicate that the judges are aware of the issue and reasonably sympathetic to employees who may have been retaliated against for bringing workers’ compensation claims.

Counter-point: Hearing retaliation cases could delay and complicate resolution of workers’ compensation cases.

Justice delayed is justice denied. In Nebraska, an injured worker can get a hearing date within 6-9 months of fling a petition and get a written decision in a matter of weeks after trial. I had a trial last month that lasted one hour inclusive of pre-trial matters, opening statements, witness testimony and closing arguments. I suspect Nebraska’s efficiency in adjudicating work injury claims would be impaired if our workers’ compensation court judges had to adjudicate workers’ compensation retaliation cases. I suspect it would take longer to to get a trial, trials would take longer and decisions would be slower.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett & Moore, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

This entry was posted in Nebraska, retaliation, Workers' Compensation and tagged , .

Safety Incentive Programs: Lawful? Effective?

Posted on by

The ”  _____ days without an accident sign” is a common feature in many workplaces. These signs are often parts of employer safety incentive programs. These programs intend to reduce work injuries which should reduce workers’ compensation expenses for business.

Often these programs include money or other financial incentives for employees. The use of programs that financially rewards employees presents three questions to me. Are these programs lawful, are they effective and are their other ways to improve workplace safety?

Are employer incentive programs lawful?

In 2018 the Department of Labor reversed Obama era regulatory guidance that safety incentive programs would violate OSHA anti-retaliation rules. The concern of the previous administration was that safety incentive programs discouraged reporting of injuries. But even the Trump DOL believes that a lawful safety incentive program must include anti-retaliation training and also address “near misses” or incidents that were nearly accidents so as not to discourage the reporting of workers’ compensation claims.

OSHA regulations largely address how that federal agency enforces workplace safety law. Employees can’t sue their employers for violations of OSHA. But in certain industries, OSHA allows whistleblower cases for employees reporting unsafet work condtions. Similarly, state laws can allow employees to being retaliation cases for reporting safety problems and or reporting a work injury. Safety incentive programs that penalize workers for injuries could violate anti-retaliation laws depending on how they are designed.

Are safety incentive programs effective?

Safety experts have questioned the effectiveness of directly rewarding employees for not being hurt. These experts believe that these programs lead employees to cover up injuries which could  cover up bigger safety issues. Philadelphia attorney Richard Jaffe criticized safety incentive programs because they are premised on the fact that employees create unsafe conditions. Put another way, the programs are premised on the assumption that employees are to blame for getting hurt.

There is powerful anecdote about the failure of some safety incentive programs. The Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine explosion killed 29 West Virginia minors in 2010. Massey’s CEO Don Blankenship had a safety incentive program that included sporting equipment and luxury goods for minors who didn’t miss work for accidents. Blankenship was convicted of violating safety standards in connection with the Upper Big Branch explosion.

The Upper Big Branch explosion coupled with the callousness of Don Blankenship is an extreme example of what could go wrong with employee safety incentive programs.

So what works?

Safety programs that involve employees working with management are the most effective. Employee input is critical because employees often have the most knowledge about a job. They also have a strong incentive to avoid injury.

Unions give employees a say in their workplace. Not surprisingly, studies in the United States and Canada show unionized workplaces are safer than non-unionized workplaces. Scholars have coined the term “union safety dividend” to describe the workplace safety benefits associated with unions.

I think unions are a better safety tool than programs that target worker behavior because they don’t assume that workers are at fault for their injuries. There are times where an employee may be at fault or share fault for an injury. But that’s why workers compensation pays limited benefits regardless of fault. Workplace safety programs that incorporate employee and employer viewpoints realize that risks in the workplace can come from employer, employee and third parties like equipment manufacturers.

 

The offices of Rehm, Bennett & Moore, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

This entry was posted in Nebraska, retaliation, Whistleblower, Workers' Compensation and tagged .

Ten years after the financial crisis, whistleblowers can only do so much

Posted on by

Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson with former President George W. Bush. Paulson’s former firm, Goldman Sachs, was among many Wall Street firms that benefited from federal bailouts 10 years ago.

This week marks the 10th Annivesary of the start of the financial crisis of 2008. I originally wrote the post below about DRT v. Somers in March but decided not to publish it for some reason. Over the lunch hour I read this piece from Wall Street pundit/apologist Aaron Ross Sorkin that made a bunch of lame excuses about how our politcal leaders handled the afternmath of the financial crisis. After reading that article I thought it would be a good idea to dust off my DRT v. Somers post. 

The United States Supreme Court just made it harder for employees to pursue retaliation cases against financial institutions when they are fired for reporting fraud.

In a unanimous opinion in Digital Realty Trust v. Somers authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the United States Supreme Court agreed with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that language within the Dodd-Frank Act that defined a whistleblower as someone who provided information to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) excluded employees who merely reported concerns about fraud internally.

The reason this decision is disturbing is that two other circuit courts and the Securities and Exchange Commission interpreted Dodd-Frank to extend whistleblower protections to those covered under the whistleblower provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley “Sarbox”, Sarbox allows employees to bring whistleblower complaints if they are terminated in retaliation for internal complaints. In the Somers case, a federal trial judge and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals both agreed that Somers could bring a Dodd-Frank case for being fired for making an internal complaint. 

While Sarbox and Dodd-Frank cases tend to overlap there are some key differences that are relevant to an employee bringing a retaliation claim. A Sarbox complaint requires an employee file a claim with OSHA within 180 days of the retaliation. Dodd-Frank allows an employee to file directly in court within 6 years of the retaliation. While a Dodd-Frank claim in easier to bring than a Sarbox claim, Sarbox allows for emotional distress damages in addition to attorney fees, backpay and re-instatement, while Dodd-Frank allows for double back pay, attorney fee, re-instatement but no general damages. While retaliation cases might be less valuable under Dodd-Frank than they would be under Sarbox, the employee would still be able to make a claim even if they waited more than 180 days from the retaliation and even if they didn’t report to the SEC or file with OSHA.

The 9th Circuit pointed out the fact that Sarbox claims included emotional distress damages while Dodd-Frank claims do not as one reason why an internal whistleblower could still bring a Dodd-Frank claim. Justice Ginsberg ignored the availability of emotional distress damages in Sarbox. Ginsberg seemed to be arguing that Dodd-Frank cases were more valuable, so they should require reporting to the SEC rather than just internal reporting. The 9th Circuit was correct in rejecting that reasoning, but unfortunately their opinion is not the law.

The 9th Circuit pointed out that Sarbox and Dodd-Frank have similar origins and purposes. University of Nebraska Law School Dean and whistleblower law expert Richard Moberly wrote that Sarbox and Dodd-Frank both encourage reporting of financial fraud.  Logically it makes sense that the whistleblower provisions of Dodd-Frank would add to provisions already within Sarbox as the laws have the same general purpose.

But Sarbox and Dodd-Frank have some differences in how they discourage fraudulent behavior. Sarbox is meant to punish employers who retaliate against whistleblowers, while Dodd-Frank encourages employees to report misconduct directly to the government by allowing employees to share in fines against the company.  Justice Ginsberg keyed on the difference between enforcement schemes under Dodd-Frank and Sarbox to argue the laws were distinguishable enough that internal reporting didn’t qualify as whistleblowing under Dodd-Frank.

By its language Somers only applies to Dodd-Frank whistleblower cases. Somers doesn’t overturn or even question precedent from anti-discrimination law (Title VII) and wage hour law (the Fair Labor Standards Act) that have permissive definition of protected activity that cover internal and informal opposition to unlawful conduct. But in less defined areas of retaliation and whistleblower law the Somers decision would certainly be persuasive authority to management-side lawyers who wish to narrowly define protected activity to defeat retaliation claims.

The SEC argued to keep internal whistleblowers covered by Dodd-Frank because internal reporting can fix problems without government intervention and for less expense. Even management-side firm Vedder Price stated in their analysis of the Somers decision that the decision could raise compliance costs because the decision would encourage employees to report directly the SEC rather than internally. It’s ironic conservative Justices like John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch approve of expanding government intervention into private firms when more cost-effective solutions are available. Cynically it would appear that the Somers decision is a gift to management side lawyers. Whistleblowers cases are easier to defend as a result of Somers, but Somers could mean more administrative charges which means more billable hours.

The Somers decision is even more galling considering the Senate, with the support of 17 of 49 members of the Democratic caucus, voted to water down reforms under Dodd-Frank.  One criticism of Sarbox was that it didn’t root out fraud because it merely punished employers for firing whistleblowers rather than encouraging early outside reporting. To some extent, financial whistleblower law assumes that problems with financial markets is a problem of bad people who break laws rather than bad laws.

The Enron scandal is one that is largely attributed to accounting fraud. That is what Sarbox was passed to remedy. But the role of over-the-counter derivatives, in other words unregulated bets, on electricity markets is an under-appreciated cause of Enron’s downfall. Enron was a proponent of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 because the reform made betting on electricity markets easier .  Enron was the canary in the coal mine when it came to the dangers of free-for-all financial speculation. Sarbox was at best a half-measure in response to Enron. Whistleblower laws can’t be relied upon to maintain our confidence in financial markets when the most dangerous financial practices are perfectly legal. Republicans and pro-business Democrats seem to be ignoring this conclusion.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett & Moore, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

This entry was posted in Dodd-Frank, retaliation, Sarbox, Whistleblower and tagged , , , .

Denied workers’ compensation and health insurance for a work injury? You might have a counter

Posted on by

Ohio State lines up to run a QB counter against Nebraska

My colleagues Paul McAndrew from Iowa and Bernard Nomberg from Alabama have blogged about the tragic but common situation of an employee who puts a work injury on private health insurance only to have health insurance deny payment because they discover the injury is work-related.

It is another example of injured workers getting squeezed. But in the right circumstances an injured worker can squeeze back— a counter-squeeze if you will.

In Nebraska health insurance benefits are considered wages. Nebraska allows employees to receive attorney fees when they sue for unpaid wages under what is called the Nebraska Wage Payment and Collection Act.  So an employer who is denying medical benefits under workers’ compensation, should not be able to deny payment of those bills under private health insurance.

Nebraska also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for claiming workers’ compensation benefits. Retaliation is an adverse action related to the terms and conditions of employment. Denying payment of wages, in the form of health insurance, because the employee has filed a workers’ compensation claim should be retaliation.

So employers denying workers’ compensation and health insurance benefits can find themselves facing a wage and hour and retaliation case.  Of course, these types of cases are a lot more complicated than described in the last two paragraphs.

In order for the counter-squeeze to work, it is best to have an employer who is at a minimum self-insured for the purposes of health insurance and ideally self-insured for health insurance and workers’ compensation. Tyson, Crete Carrier and Werner Enterprises are large Nebraska employers who fit into the latter category. Self-insurance is important because it allows the employee to link the decision to deny benefits to the employer. In theory you can still make a counter-squeeze work when outside insurance companies are involved, but that turns the case into a civil conspiracy case that can be more costly and difficult to prove.

Wage and hour cases also require detailed proof of medical bills and existence of a valid contract for payment of benefits. If an employee appears to have misrepresented how an injury happened, an employer may be able to fire an employee regardless of any retaliatory motive on their part. But the employee who at first blush may have “screwed up their case” by paying for their workers’ compensation injury with their private health insurance, may be able to salvage a good outcome in their work injury case.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett & Moore, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

This entry was posted in Nebraska, retaliation, Wage and Hour, Workers Compensation and tagged , , , .