Tag Archives: Oklahoma

More Takeaways from the Demise of the Oklahoma Option in Workers’ Compensation

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oklahoma-ruling-vasquez-v-dillardsThe Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the so-called “Oklahoma Option” in Vasquez v. Dillard’s was one of the biggest events in the world of workers’ compensation. Vasquez represents a growing trend by advocates for injured workers recognizing that workers’ compensation is a matter of constitutional law. But the Vasquez decision is important for other reasons.

Opt-Out is Still Viable

Though some commentators declared the defeat of the Oklahoma option was the death of opt-out, many justices on the Oklahoma Supreme Court who overturned the Oklahoma option would disagree.

A concurring opinion contrasted the Oklahoma opt-out system with the Texas opt-out system. In Texas, employers are not required to have or “subscribe” to workers’ compensation. But if Texas employers do not subscribe to workers’ compensation, injured Texas employees can sue their employer in tort with all affirmative defenses stripped away. This encourages employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance. Nebraska has a similar law for agricultural employers who are exempt from having to carry workers’ compensation.

Oklahoma’s “opt-out” created separate workers’ compensation systems: the state system under the Administrative Workers’ Compensation Act (AWCA) or the private systems under the Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act (OEIBA), where employees were eligible for the same benefits but where employers could draft their own rules for eligibility. Regardless of whether an employee was covered under the AWCA or the OEIBA, employers still had to be covered under one system or another, and employees could not sue their employer in tort for work injuries. What doomed the Oklahoma option was the fact that unfair procedures under the OEIBA created separate but unequal workers’ compensation systems.

The contrast between the now defunct Oklahoma option and the still-viable Texas opt-out system was reinforced when the Vasquez court rejected Dillard’s argument that Vasquez’s claim was pre-empted by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) law. Under the Oklahoma option, plans under the OEIBA were to be governed by the ERISA law. However, since OEIBA served as workers’ compensation and ERISA plans that serve as workers’ compensation plans do not pre-empt state workers’ compensation laws, the OEIBA was not pre-empted by federal law. In contrast, state law claims against employers on disability insurance plans who are “nonsubscribers” in Texas are pre-empted by ERISA.

Few, If Any States, Are Going to Implement the Oklahoma Option

The Oklahoma option was struck down on equal-protection grounds based on the Oklahoma state constitution. Most other states have similar provisions in their state constitutions. In Nebraska, that provision is found at Article III, Section 18 of our state constitution. This provision concerns itself with disparate treatment in much the same manner as does the language of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits a state from making or enforcing any law that denies any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws.” Distinctive Printing & Packaging Co. v. Cox, 232 Neb. 846, 443 N.W.2d 566 (1989). Even in a state without an equal protection clause in the state constitution, separate but unequal workers’ compensation systems could be likely be struck down on equal-protection grounds under the U.S. Constitution.

Injured Workers Are a Protected Class

Injured workers are sometimes subject to retaliation for bringing workers’ compensation claims. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court distinguished “discrimination” or “protected status” from “retaliation” or “protected activity” cases under Title VII and held that there was a higher burden of proof for employees bringing a retaliation case than for an employee bringing a discrimination case. However, if injured workers are thought of as a protected class, then discrimination in the form of termination should be thought of as a form of discrimination, and those claims should be subject to a more relaxed burden of proof than required in the Nassar 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 Courts, Government, Workers' Compensation, Workers' Compensation Reform and tagged , , , , , , .

Recalling the Forgotten Provision of the ‘Grand Bargain’

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grand-bargainThe Oklahoma and Florida supreme courts both overturned anti-worker changes to their state workers’ compensation laws based in whole or in part on their state constitutions. Workers’ compensation laws, for the most part, are state laws. This post seeks to explain why workers’ compensation laws are state laws and what that could mean for workers’ compensation laws in the future.

The vast majority of workers’ compensation attorneys and industry observers know the term “Grand Bargain.” In the “Grand Bargain,” employees gave up the right to sue their employers in tort for work injuries in exchange for defined benefits regardless of fault.

Workers’ compensation laws emerged roughly a century ago. However, Congress did not have the power to enact the “Grand Bargain” because of how the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Commerce Clause. In 1895, the court held in United States v. E.C. Knight that manufacturing was not commerce. In 1918, the court overturned a law prohibiting child labor on similar grounds and additionally held that the effects of child labor did not have enough of an impact on interstate commerce to justify regulation.

The Supreme Court did uphold the constitutionality of workers’ compensation laws in the case of New York Central Railroad v. White. However, the court upheld workers’ compensation laws based on a state’s so-called “police powers” under the 10th Amendment.

During the New Deal era in the 1930s, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the interstate commerce clause changed so that workers’ compensation laws could have been enacted by the federal government. But by then, most states had workers’ compensation laws, so a general federal workers’ compensation law was unnecessary.

‘Federalization’ in the Post-New Deal Era

In the 1970s, Congress passed laws regarding occupational safety (Occupational Safety and Health Act) and employee benefits (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) under its authority granted by the interstate commerce clause. But neither OSHA nor ERISA were intended to interfere with state workers’ compensation laws.

The 1970s also saw an ultimately failed effort to impose federal minimum standards on state workers’ compensation. It was in this era that the term “federalization” and the concerns about the impact of federal laws on state workers’ compensation systems emerged.

Federalization re-emerged as an issue in the 2000s when concerns arose that the costs of workers’ compensation injuries were being shifted onto Medicare, and the federal government tried to fashion remedies to shift the cost back onto the workers’ compensation system. The effect of the Affordable Care Act on workers’ compensation was another federal issue that was hotly debated in workers’ compensation circles.

Finally in President Obama’s second term, OSHA issued many rules about medical care and drug testing  that could have affected workers’ compensation laws. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and other elected leaders also wrote a letter to the Secretary of Labor pointing out the failure of state-based workers’ compensation systems.

Conventional wisdom is that the election of Donald Trump paired with a Republican Congress will end the Obama era efforts at federalization of the workers’ compensation system. There is probably a fair amount of truth to this idea, but the Trump era may not spell the end of federalization of workers’ compensation.

In the 2010s “sharing economy,” companies such as Uber and Lyft emerged. The business model of these companies is premised on workers being independent contractors. However, this has created litigation and uncertainty for these companies. In 2015, the Democratic-aligned Brookings Institute hosted a discussion about the “reforming” labor laws for companies like Uber. Though workers’ compensation laws are traditionally state-based laws, there is no constitutional prohibition on designing workers’ compensation systems at a federal level. Unfortunately, it seems as some Democrats could find common ground with Donald Trump and House Speaker Ryan to amend ERISA and the Fair Labor Standards Act to exempt Uber drivers and other sharing economy workers from laws such as workers’ compensation.

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 Legislation, OSHA, United States Supreme Court, Workers' Comp Basics, Workers' Compensation, Workers' Compensation Reform and tagged , , , , , .

Why Due Process Matters in Workers’ Compensation

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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.

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.

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Safety, Workers’ Compensation Rights Are Concern in Many States

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Here is another sad round in the endless battle to preserve human rights against bigger profits.

On May 5, the Illinois House of Representatives met as the “committee as a whole” and heard testimony from an injured Oklahoma worker who had been devastated by cost- and benefit-cutting “reforms” similar to measures the governor of Illinois wants to impose on Illinois workers.

The article about this extraordinary event is important. One victim of losing long-held rights to compensation stood before a legislature of another state, educating them on what really happens to injured workers as a result of “reform.”

Fair workers’ compensation benefits are a fundamental human right. Human beings and their loved ones suffer with each takeaway, while CEOs are paid outrageous sums to increase profits. Injured Oklahoman John Coffell described exactly how he and his loved ones were affected.

“Coffell told the legislators that after injuring a disc in his back last summer, his pay dropped dramatically because Oklahoma had reduced the maximum wage-replacement benefits injured workers could receive from $801 a week to $561 a week.

“Almost immediately, he said, his utilities were cut off, his truck was repossessed and his family was evicted from their rental home. Because no relative could accommodate all of them, Coffell sent his three children, aged 5 to 9, to live with grandparents. He and his wife only had enough gas money to see them on weekends. They’ve had to rely on food stamps to get by.”

Because of his state’s workers’ compensation “reform,” Coffell’s children only got to see their parents on weekends.

Others who were affected by workers’ compensations in two different states – Illinois and Indiana – also painted the stark reality of how harsh a system can be at the hearing in Illinois. The contrast was obvious. “Laurie Summers — an Illinois nurse who dislocated her shoulder lifting a patient at a hospital in Indiana — said she had to drain her retirement savings and fight to get surgery.” But “Christine Fuller — who lived in Indiana, but whose father died from falling off a roof on a job in Illinois — said the survivor benefits she received from workers’ comp helped pay the mortgage and put her through college and graduate school.”

This testimony and hearing demonstrates that workers and their allies are gaining strength and finding new ways to fight the never-ending efforts to reduce costs, increase profits, and improve the business climate. These tactics frequently and all-to-often sacrifice workers’ safety and the safety net that is workers’ compensation.

This unusual event also shows that even though workers’ compensation programs are run at the state level, workers’ compensation “reforms” don’t happen in a vacuum. Businesses may tout the alleged advantages they get over other states by pushing these reforms through state legislatures. But a worker like Coffell from Oklahoma pushed back against the Illinois legislation, even though it didn’t directly affect him. He showed the struggle that a worker often has, regardless of the state where he or she was injured, to get workers’ compensation benefits, especially in states focused on “reform.”

“The ProPublica and NPR series has led to bills to raise benefits in Alabama and prevent medical care from being cut off in California. Officials have also warned insurers in California not to abuse the process and have launched an audit of how one insurer handled a claim in which a paraplegic’s home health care was terminated,” according to the recent ProPublica article about the Illinois hearing.

All concerned about the human rights of injured workers must keep working to find better, stronger and more effective ways to protect these human rights. Because a state’s business climate should not be more important than workers’ rights, safety and dignity.

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.

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“Opting Out” of Worker’s Compensation Hurts Workers and Employers (Part 2)

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Today’s post comes from guest author Tom Domer, from The Domer Law Firm in Wisconsin. It is a follow-up to a post last week. There is a disturbing trend among states to essentially gut workers’ compensation systems and laws by being “business friendly” and then calling that practice variations of “alternative worker’s compensation programs.” I always thought businesses were more profitable and successful when their employees worked in a safe environment and were taken care of if they happened to get injured on the job. And the reality is that in the race for a bigger profit, the injured workers pay in human capital. The wisely written “cautionary note to employers” below is the workers’ consolation prize, apparently.

Last week we explained Wisconsin’s rich history of protecting injured workers through its mandatory workers’ compensation system. This week we’ll look at what is happening in Texas and Oklahoma, where it is not mandatory for employers.

Alternative worker’s compensation programs( like that of Texas’—and now Oklahoma— non-subscriber / “Opt Out” scheme) have the potential to significantly reduce workplace safety. Since experience rating is a fundamental component of worker’s compensation insurance systems, the comp system provides economic incentives to employers through reduced insurance costs to companies with reduced injury rates and safe workplaces.  Texas’ “opt out” option  means that an employer can choose to be self insured or become a non-subscriber and opt out of worker’s compensation insurance entirely. Those employers opting out of worker’s compensation systems are not experience rated and there is no economic incentive to reduce workplace injuries and ensure safe work environments for their employees.

Most recently on April 17, 2013 a fertilizer plant exploded in Texas, killing 15 and injuring approximately 200 people. EMS workers, firefighters, and other first responders were among the casualties.  The West Fertilizer Company was approved to have no more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate in the plant, but instead, 270 tons were reported to be on site. West Fertilizer failed to inform the Department of Homeland Security of the amount of fertilizer it had. Texas had as well the worst recorded industrial accident in America in 1947 when 3,200 tons of ammonium nitrate resulted in almost 600 deaths and 3,500 injuries.

Texas has the worst work-related fatality rate in the nation.

Texas has the worst work-related fatality rate in the nation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 433 reported fatalities occurred in 2011 alone in Texas with the highest (4.79 per 100,000 workers) for the last ten years. (Oklahoma is in line to follow).

Oklahoma’s worker’s compensation measure was signed into law May 5 and it drastically changes how Oklahomans are compensated for on the job injuries. Republican Governor Mary Fallin has tried to change the worker’s compensation system for over 20 years in State politics.  She indicated the bill would reduce costs for businesses. The law changes worker’s compensation system from a judicial to an administrative one, allowing businesses to opt out of the worker’s compensation systems as long as they provide “equivalent” benefits to injured workers. Opponents of the law indicate that it is unfair to injured workers because it will reduce their benefits. The implementation of “equivalent” benefits, and what kind of injuries are covered or uncovered by those who “opt out” of the system is yet to be determined.

Cautionary note to employers: since those employers that “opt out” of worker’s compensation are no longer allowed the benefit of the exclusive remedy provision of worker’s compensation, workers who are not covered by worker’s compensation can sue their employers. For example, in a recent Colorado case where an undocumented worker (who by Statute in Colorado was not covered under worker’s compensation) received over a $1 million verdict against the negligent employer.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_industrial_disasters

Worker’s compensation systems benefit both employers and workers, and the dangers of opting out of the system means a retreat to harsh industrial conditions, producing  the same kind of inequities  that workers’ comp remedied over a century ago. The situation calls to mind the maxim that those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.

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.

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“Opting Out” of Worker’s Compensation Hurts Workers and Employers (Part 1)

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Our good friend Tom Domer posted the following article about the history of workers compensation in America. Nebraska, like Wisconsin, was an early pioneer. Our Workers Compensation law was effective in 1913. Current efforts to allow business to opt of workers compensation protection for workers seems to be gaining momentum. Going back to the 19th century in treatment of workers is not acceptable. We can’t let the forces of big business and greed take us back to the robber baron days of old. Reading the history and understanding how important workers compensation protection is essential and I thank Tom for his well written and thoughtful discussion.

More than a century ago, Wisconsin’s initial efforts in worker’s compensation led the nation. In 1911 Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to place a broad constitutionally valid worker’s compensation system into operation. Recent events, specifically Oklahoma’s passing legislation to allow employers to “opt out” of worker’s compensation (following the “lead” of Texas) calls into question the great bargain made between employers and workers over a century ago. Prior to the enactment of worker’s compensation in the early 20th Century, workers who were injured on the job had to overcome three common law obstacles in order to recover from their employer.

Under contributory negligence, a worker could not recover from the employer if the worker had been negligent in any way and that negligence contributed to the accident, regardless of how negligent the employer may have been.

Under assumption of risk, if a worker knew or should have known of the danger inherent in the task at issue before undertaking it, the employer was not liable for an accident arising from the task even if the employee was not negligent.

Under the fellow servant rule, employers could not be held liable for accidents caused by fellow employees.

The combined effect of these common law defenses served to deny Continue reading

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.

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