Tag Archives: commerce clause

Unless you have Marine One, Air Ambulances are a pricey proposition

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Last Friday President Trump travelled to Walter Reed Hospital in the Presidential helicopter, Marine One, to seek treatment for COVID-19. The President has use of a helicopter, most of us don’t. Sometimes air ambulances are necessary, particularly in remote rural areas, to transport individuals with severe injuries or illnesses.

But if you read this blog, you know that air ambulance bills are often  incredibly expensive — and even worse not covered by insurance.

So why are air ambulance charges often not covered by insurance?

Preemption: Federal rock breaks state scissors

Air ambulances are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. The authority for this regulation is the so-called interstate commerce clause. Insurance, whether health insurance or workers compensation, is governed by state law because Congress ruled that insurance regulation is the purview of state law. Workers’ compensation laws are state laws that are constitutionally valid due to a state’s general police powers under the 10th Amendment.

So when accident victims try to pay for an air ambulance charge with health insurance or through workers’ compensation insurance, air ambulance providers argue they aren’t bound by state laws regulating insurance since they are regulated by the federal government.

This argument is called preemption. Preemption means that if state and federal laws conflict on a subject that federal law governs. In other words, the federal rock crushes the state scissors. A majority of courts side with  the air ambulance companies in holding that federal law regulating air ambulances pre-empts states from using their laws on insurance to regulate air ambulance charges.

In practical terms, injury cases involving air ambulances are more difficult to resolve. Fortunately, air ambulances aren’t covered by Nebraska’s lien statute which gives doctors and other providers a right to recover unpaid bills out of a personal injury settlement. This can give attorneys some leverage over these providers

What would the Founding Fathers think about air ambulances?

Before he went to the hospital, the President nominated 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. Barrett’s views on abortion and other hot button social issues have drawn attention. But the bulk of cases decided by federal courts tend to be esoteric and obscure issues like air ambulance charges that stem from tensions within the United States Constitution.

I don’t know if Barrett has ruled on an air ambulance case. Barrett is known as an “originalist” or someone who looks at the intentions of the Founding Fathers in interpreting the Constitution.

But in my mind air ambulance cases are one example of the limits of the originalist approach. Passenger air travel post-dates the Constitution by about 130 years. What would the Founding Fathers know about air ambulances? Anyone who brings an originalist approach to deciding an issue like air ambulance charges is just dressing up their policy preferences in late 18th century garb.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, 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.

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Feds prosecuting COVID fraud by employees

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My jaw dropped last Tuesday when I read a blog post by Ohio-based management defense attorney Jon Hyman.

Hyman posted the Department of Justice criminally charging an employee for allegedly defrauding his employer by submitting a forged doctor’s note stating he had COVID-19. Human Resources and management-side defense social media share a near obsession with Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) fraud by employees.

So why can HR now sic the FBI on employees who forge  off-work notes?

The CARES Act, interstate commerce and taxing power

The answer to this question is the CARES Act. Passed in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the CARES Act amended the FMLA to provide some employees with paid leave related to COVID-19. The CARES Act also used federal funds to expand unemployment benefits related to COVID-19.

Normally state law would govern the prosecution of small-time workplace fraud under crimes like forgery and unemployment fraud. But a federal bailout creates federal criminal jurisdiction. The United States Department of Justice is aggressively prosecuting COVID fraud. Some employer-advocates question the use of the federal power to regulate interstate commerce for the good of employees. But the interstate commerce clause also expands the ability to federalize crime. It seems like employer-advocates are welcoming the expansion of federal authority to prosecute fraud by employees.

Federal taxes partially fund unemployment benefits. This would give the federal government the power to federalize unemployment fraud through the taxing power granted to Congress by the Constitution.

The real COVID fraudsters

The Georgia case is the first known incident of an employee being prosecuted for forging a medical note. COVID-related fraud mirrors workers’ compensation fraud in that most fraud is not committed by employees.  Apparently organized crime is submitting false unemployment claims. Some individuals and businesses are falsely submitting claims under the Paycheck Protection Program. If an employee suspects their company is abusing the Paycheck Protection Program they could bring a claim under the False Claims Act.

But while low level employees are not committing the vast majority of COVID fraud, low-level employees are the easiest to prosecute. Prosecuting low-level employees for COVID fraud serves at least two purposes for employers.

Reopening and unionizing

As the perceived threat of COVID recedes, many businesses are reopening and employees are returning to work. Employers complain that some employees are reluctant to return to work because of enhanced unemployment benefits. However many employees are expressing safety concerns about COVID exposure. Publicizing the prosecution of COVID fraud by employees calls into question the legitimacy of employee safety concerns. Criminalizing COVID fraud by employees also allows employers and their mouthpieces in the media to portray workers worried about COVID as welfare cheats.

The use of state power on behalf of employers against employees serves another purpose. Mike Elk of Payday Report tracked walkouts and strikes related to the COVID 19 pandemic. Management-side pundits are also expressing concern about rising pro-union sentiments by employees.  Prosecuting employees is one way to intimidate employees who want to form unions or engage in collective action in the workplace.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, 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.

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Compstitutional Law 101: Part 2: Will Sveen signal a move to judicially dismantle the “grand bargain”?

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Watch out for what these three could say in Sveen v. Melin

WILG is hosting a summit on the constitutional challenges in workers’ compensation on April 18th, I won’t be able to attend, but this post and my last post are my contribution to this ongoing discussion.

Stating that “a seemingly obscure case could have far-reaching implications” is one of the most overused clichés in legal blogging and journalism.  But a case involving a dispute over the proceeds of a life insurance policy might impact the constitutional basis for workers’ compensation and other state laws protecting employees.

In March, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Sveen v. Melin (paywall). In Sveen, a former spouse was challenging a Minnesota law automatically removing a spouse as beneficiary of an insurance policy upon divorce. The grounds for the challenge is the so-called contracts clause of the United States Constitution which prohibits states from passing laws that impair the obligation of a contract.

Pro-corporate legal commentators have long lamented the demise of the contracts clause at the expense of laws enacted by states under 10th Amendment police powers. When these pundits and academics write about a “contracts clause revival”, they are really writing about diminishing the rights of states to enact laws under their police powers.

One of the most important set of state laws enacted under police powers are workers’ compensation laws. In New York Central Railroad v. White  state workers’ compensation laws were found to be constitutionally enacted under a state’s 10th Amendment police powers.  State laws regulating workplace safety and the ability to injured employees to seek legal redress were one of the primary drivers for the broad recognition of police powers in the late 19th century. A good discussion of the background behind the expansion of state police powers is found in the 1898 Supreme Court case of Holden v. Hardy.  In short, the Supreme Court found that state workplace safety laws were a response to the new industrial economy of the late 19th century and valid exercises of state police powers.

University of Chicago Law Professor Richard Epstein argued that minimum wage laws violated the contracts clause.  It’s not much of an intellectual stretch to argue that mandatory workers’ compensation laws would violate the contracts clause using Epstein’s interpretation of the contracts clause. A gig economy employer like Uber subjected to a state workers’ compensation law might argue that they should not be subjected to such a law under the contracts clause.

On April 2nd the Supreme Court reversed 70 years of precdent in narrowly construing exceptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act in the Navarro case. Navarro will likely have the effect of pushing plaintiffs to file more wage and hour cases under state laws. A revived contracts clause could cut off or curtail opportunities for justice for victims of wage theft in state court.

A potential contracts clause revival should concern advocates for injured workers for other reasons. In recent years, attorneys for injured workers have had a fair amount of success in overturning anti-worker changes to workers’ compensation laws based on state constitutions. That avenue would likely be blocked with a full-blown contracts clause revival.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, state laws regulating workplace conditions were struck down under 14th Amendment substantive due process. But substantive due process also allows claims for a broad variety of civil rights that are disliked by judicial conservatives, so the substantive due process clause is disfavored by courts.  The contracts clause allows courts to strike down worker-friendly state laws without creating a mechanism for expanding rights for suspect classes of individuals like prisoners or victims of police brutality. In New York Central v. White, the Supreme Court considered and rejected arguments overturning workers’ compensation laws on substantive due process grounds and contracts clause grounds.

Finally, a broad interpretation of the contracts clause would allow the Supreme Court to overturn state workers’ compensation laws while still maintaining the narrowed interpretation of interstate commerce the Roberts court appear to be endorsing in NFIB v. Sebelius. As I wrote in a post last week, a narrow construction of the commerce clause could be a high hurdle in enacting worker-friendly chagnes to workers’ compensation laws on a federal level.

Sveen v. Melin will likely be decided this spring. If the Supreme Court strikes down the Minnesota law based on the contracts clause, I will be interested to read the language of the opinion. I will also be interested in reading any concurring opinions from hard core conservatives like Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito as those opinions could be a clue as to where the court could be going on contracts clause jurisprudence. It is unlikely that Sveen v. Melin will be grounds to invalidate state workers’ compensation laws. Supreme Court decisions are limited to actual cases and controversies that are presentd to them. But Sveen could be another step in undercutting New Deal and Progressive Era refroms.  The Supreme Court has been chipping away at New Deal era laws in cases like Navarro and the Tackett decision in 2015. A bad decision in Sveen might accelerate the rollback of pro-worker laws.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, 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.

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