Workers' Comp

 

Nebraska Supreme Court emphasizes statute of limitations and uniformity of policies in employment discrimination and retaliation claims

The Nebraska Supreme Court recently ruled on claims for disability discrimination and alleged retaliation against an employee for her filing of a worker’s compensation claim. Neither claim withstood a motion for summary judgment. The case is a helpful reminder of the importance of adhering to your policies in every instance and also shows how strictly courts will apply statutes of limitations, to an employer’s benefit here.

Facts of the Case

            Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff employed Melinda Brown as a customer service representative in its financial services department. She fell in the parking lot on August 16, 2011, injuring her hand and wrist. Ms. Brown filed a worker’s compensation claim with the medical center. She took twelve weeks of leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.

            Following the FMLA leave, Ms. Brown was granted another eight weeks of director-approved leave, consistent with the medical center’s policies. Also consistent with such policy, the eight week leave was granted but the medical center did not guarantee her position would be held for her at its expiration, and informed her she should apply for open positions during the leave. This leave was to expire on January 7, 2012.

            While on leave, Ms. Brown submitted a request for a reasonable accommodation to perform her customer service job. Her alleged impairment was limited use of her injured hand. The accommodation requested was simply to have a job to come back to after she was cleared of restrictions by her physician. Ms. Brown never returned to work after the accident or after her periods of approved leave.

            Instead, she was placed on furlough status on January 8, 2012, in further accord with Regional West Medical Center’s policies. The policy was to place an employee who does not return from leave on furlough status for up to one year from the date of the initial absence, during which she continued to receive employee benefits, was not paid salary, and in which her job was not held for her. To return during the one-year furlough, Ms. Brown would have to apply and be approved for an open position at the medical center. Ms. Brown received a letter January 12, 2012 informing her of this.

            Ms. Brown’s furlough expired on August 15, 2012; one year after her work-related injury absences began. She applied for no jobs at the medical center during furlough. On that same date, the medical center sent Ms. Brown a termination letter, citing the expiration of the furlough as the reason for “administratively ending your employment.”

Employee’s Claims and Suit

            Ms. Brown filed a charge of disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Nebraska Fair Employment Practice Act on December 20, 2012. She claimed that she was denied a reasonable accommodation and terminated because of her disability. The Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission ultimately issued a right to sue notice.

            The ADA and NFEPA claims were brought in the District Court of Scottsbluff County along with a common claim of retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim. That court entered summary judgment on all claims, and the employee appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

            The issue on appeal with regard to the ADA and NFEPA claims of discrimination involved the statute of limitations for filing those charges with the NEOC. There was no genuine dispute of material fact that Ms. Brown was sent the letter notifying her of the expiration of her furlough’s expiration date and that she would be terminated upon that occurrence. The date of the letter was January 8, 2012, and she acknowledged receiving it soon after within her NEOC charge of discrimination.

            It was that letter that constituted the adverse act by the medical center against Ms. Brown. The letter was clear that she was going to be terminated on August 15, 2012 unless she applied and obtained another position during her furlough. She never even applied for another position during that time. Thus, the medical center’s decision was known to Ms. Brown in January 2012.

            A charge of discrimination under Nebraska and federal law must be filed with the NEOC within 300 days of the adverse action against the employee. The Court found that date was in January 2012 here, yet Ms. Brown did not file her charge until December 20, 2012, more than 300 days after the letter was sent to her. As a result, the Court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the claims because of the expired statute of limitations.

            The claim of retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim did not have to be submitted first to the NEOC or any agency. It was appropriately brought in court and within the requisite time period. However, that claim failed because the undisputed material facts showed it could not be proven to any reasonable jury at a trial.

            To establish retaliation in this context, a plaintiff must establish that she filed a worker’s compensation claim, that she was terminated from employment, and that a causal link exists between the termination and filing the claim. A retaliatory motive may be shown by proximity in time between filing the worker’s compensation claim and the termination, coupled with satisfactory prior work performance and good supervisor evaluations.

            In Ms. Brown’s case, the evidence indisputably showed that there were 20 weeks between the time of filing for worker’s compensation benefits and her administrative furlough. It was even longer until she was administratively terminated (which occurred one year after her first absence for the work-related injury). Most significant, Regional West Medical Center’s human resource officers had testified in depositions that they followed the absence, leave, and furlough policies to the letter and in the same manner as with employees similarly situated to Ms. Brown. Thus, there was no evidence of a retaliatory motive and the time between the worker’s compensation claim and the termination was not proximate.

Brown vs. Regional West Med. Ctr. 300 Neb. 937 (2018).

Takeaway for employers

            This case shows two important principles that repeat in employment claims. First, the statute of limitations can be powerful. Second, clear policies for human resources and supervisors to execute can be equally powerful. Applying those policies similarly in each instance can go a long way to negate any claim of improper motive or unfairness in the policy’s effects. If you have questions about how to craft a clear and easy to execute policy, keep your attorneys just a phone call or email away.

Nebraska Supreme Court defines “restore” and “suitable employment” for vocational rehabilitation plans

Nebraska law permits the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court to approve vocational rehabilitation plans for certain injured workers to facilitate their return to gainful employment. Read on to learn about the Nebraska Supreme Court’s recent consideration of what the law means to “restore” an employee to work and in “suitable employment.”

Factual Background

            Charles Anderson injured his arm while working as a millwright with EMCOR Group, Inc. When Anderson was injured, he was making $26.50 an hour and $1060 per week. When Anderson reached maximum medical improvement, the workers’ compensation court determined that he was entitled to a vocational rehabilitation evaluation. Anderson and EMCOR agreed on a vocational rehabilitation counselor, Lisa Porter.

            Porter prepared a “Vocational Rehabilitation Plan Justification for Formal Training Proposal.” Under Nebraska statute, there are five priorities that must be used in developing and evaluating a vocational rehabilitation plan. A higher priority may not be used “unless all priorities below it are unlikely to result in suitable employment.” For Anderson, the three lowest priorities were inadequate as they involve a plan to work for the same employer. EMCOR did not have any suitable employment available for Anderson. Porter decided that the next highest priority would be unavailable to Anderson as well, which involved employment with a new employer. Porter’s research showed that available jobs for Anderson paid $9 to $11 an hour; not suitable in light of his earnings at EMCOR of $26.50 per hour. Porter also contacted other employers but they did not have suitable employment for Anderson.

            As a result, Porter decided the only option for Anderson was under the highest priority plans. This priority involved “formal training that will lead to employment in another career field.” Anderson had grown county-fair award winning vegetables in the past. Anderson also had an interest in this area. Therefore, Porter felt the career field best suited for Anderson would be in horticulture or agriculture.

            Upon making this finding, Porter prepared the plan for Anderson. Under her plan, Anderson “would obtain a 2-year associate’s degree of applied science in agriculture business and management with a focus in horticulture at Southeast Community College in Beatrice, Nebraska.” Anderson’s hourly wage would be $13.20 after completing his education.

            After the plan was created by Porter, it was evaluated by a vocational rehabilitation specialist appointed by the compensation court. The vocational rehabilitation specialist denied Porter’s plan. Based on information the court’s specialist learned from the community college’s placement services director, formal training was unnecessary for the job goals of the plan. The specialist also stated that the job search done by Porter showed six jobs that did not require training and that paid between $9 and $14 per hour. The specialist ultimately decided that Porter’s formal training plan was “not reasonable or necessary” as one of the plan goals (employment as a vegetable farmer) was something that Anderson was already performing so he had no need for further training.

            After the specialist denied the plan, EMCOR petitioned to modify the award of vocational rehabilitation benefits and services. EMCOR alleged that Anderson’s “condition and circumstances no longer support an award of such services.” EMCOR claimed these services were no longer necessary because Anderson was already partaking in the practice of gardening and Anderson admitted “his inability to earn a similar or increased wage performing the work for which he seeks vocational rehabilitating retraining, and consent to earning such a lower wage.” Anderson responded by filing a motion requesting the implementation of Porter’s plan.

Anderson’s Testimony

            The court heard evidence on Anderson’s motion. Anderson testified that he had earned his GED and received a diploma in computer-aided drafting in 1998. Due to changes in technology, this education was no longer useful. Anderson testified that there were few jobs available in his area, and he was unwilling to work more than 25 miles away from his hometown. Anderson did not seek employment in the previous year but did earn $150 a week for five months from selling vegetables that he grew in his garden. Collectively, Anderson and his wife made $8,000 per year. Anderson testified that his “ultimate career employment goal was to be self-employed.” Anderson wanted to expand his greenhouse. Formal education would qualify him for jobs in selling chemicals, farm management, or as a golf course manager. In learning these potential jobs, he could then build a greenhouse and become self-employed.

Compensation Court’s Opinion

            The compensation court dismissed EMCOR’s petition to modify the award of vocational rehabilitation benefits and services and declared that Anderson was “entitled to participate in the proposed plan” because his current job of farming was not “suitable employment.” The court then determined that it was “unable to conclude that [Porter’s] plan will not lead to a suitable job.” EMCOR then appealed.

Nebraska Supreme Court Ruling

            In considering the appeal, the Nebraska Supreme Court noted one of the primary purposes of the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act is “restoration of an injured employee to gainful employment” and that if an employee is “unable to perform suitable work for which he or she has previous training or experience, the employee is entitled to vocational rehabilitation services as may be reasonably necessary to restore him or her to suitable employment.” The central focus of EMCOR’s appeal was on whether the vocational rehabilitation plan set forth by Porter would restore Anderson to “suitable employment.”

            The court explicitly adopted definitions of “restore” and “suitable employment.” “Restore” was defined to mean “to put back.” The court defined “suitable employment” to mean “employment which is compatible with the employee’s pre-injury occupation, age, education, and aptitude.”

            The compensation court determined that income of less than $8,000 per year was not “suitable employment” for Anderson. In order for him to gain employment in the relevant field of horticulture, additional education would be required. The compensation court had also taken into consideration the fact that job opportunities were limited in the area where Anderson lived. The Supreme Court held there was sufficient evidence to support the lower court’s findings in this regard.

            Porter’s plan involved Anderson working full-time as a supervisor or manager and the median annual wage in the area of farming, fishing, and forestry was $49,100. The Court held that Porter’s plan would place Anderson into employment making similar wages prior to the injury and “in a field that would be compatible with his age, education, and aptitude.”

            Since the plan “was reasonably necessary to restore Anderson to suitable employment, the [compensation] court did not err in ordering that Anderson was entitled to participate in it.”

For employers

            When you have an employee claiming a workplace injury or are facing issues with regarding an employee’s claim to benefits following an injury, engaging an experienced workers’ compensation attorney is vital.

Federal Appellate Court Rules that Obesity is Not a Disability (Most of the Time)

In a case of first impression for the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the court ruled that, in most cases, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not cover obesity alone. In Morriss v. BSNF Railway Company, Mr. Morriss sued the railroad when his offer of employment was revoked after a physical. The would-be employee failed a physical when his Body Mass Index (BMI) was found to violate company policy, even though he did not have any current health concerns or work restrictions. The company, concerned about health and safety risks to which an employee with a high BMI may be susceptible, had instituted a policy refusing to hire candidates with a high BMI for safety-sensitive positions. Mr. Morriss sued, arguing the company discriminated against him in violation of the ADA. The company was granted summary judgment, and Mr. Morriss appealed.
 
The ADA prohibits a covered employer from discriminating against any “qualified individual on the basis of disability”. Of the several definitions of “disability”, the Eighth Circuit focused on whether Mr. Morriss had an actual or perceived physical impairment. A physical impairment, as defined by the EEOC, means a physiological disorder affecting one or more body systems. As a result, the court concluded that an individual’s weight is considered covered when it falls outside the normal range and occurs as a result of a physiological disorder. Because Mr. Morriss had no evidence that his weight was the result of a physiological disorder, the court affirmed the district court’s decision. While this decision does not mean that ADA coverage is out of reach for claimants with obesity, it certainly excludes a substantial amount of claims. When conducting physicals, Iowa and Nebraska employers with similar policies should take care that the candidate does not have any underlying disorder causing obesity or a covered disability arising from obesity to avoid liability under the ADA.

Iowa Court of Appeals Issues New Decision on the Coming and Going Rule

The Iowa Court of Appeals recently reviewed several exceptions to the going and coming rule. In Seaman vs. Burgess Health Center, Mrs. Seaman died tragically on her way to work. The agency determined that she was not injured while in the course of her duties. Therefore, it barred her widower’s action for death benefits and funeral expenses. 

On appeal, the widower argued that there was a causal injury between her death and her work with Burgess Health Center. According to the going and coming rule, injuries occurring off the employer’s premises while the employee is on the way to or from work are not compensable. However, the court does make several exceptions. Of those, the widower argued that the special errand exception, dual purpose exception, and second business situs exception applied. 

The special errand exception applies when an employee is injured away from the employer’s premises during a special errand or mission for their employer. The dual purpose exception applies when an employee is injured off the premises while making a trip that serves both personal and business purposes. To apply this exception, the employee would have had to make the trip even if it did not coincide with the business purpose. The widower argued that both exceptions applied because his wife was on her way to work to deliver completed patient reports. He argued that the reports were time sensitive and she would be reprimanded if she did not deliver them. However, the court found no facts that would make the agency’s finding that she did not have to provide the reports that day illogical or unjustified. Therefore, neither the special errand exception nor the dual purpose exception applied. 

Finally, the widower argued that the business situs exception applied. The business situs exception applies when the employee’s home serves as a secondary office. While the Iowa Supreme Court has not officially adopted this exception, other courts state that it applies when it finds a large amount of work performed at home, continuing presence of work equipment at home, or special circumstances of the particular employment that make it necessary and not personally convenient to work from home. A great example of this occurs when a woman must work from home due to pregnancy. Although Mrs. Seaman did some work at home in the evenings to complete reports, she never saw clients at home, Burgess Heath Center never required her to work from home or paid for mileage to and from work. Mrs. Seaman did not have equipment at home. Based on these facts, the court could not find the agency’s finding that the exception did not apply wholly irrational. Therefore, the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the decision that Mrs. Seaman’s estate was barred from workers’ compensation benefits.

This case serves as a great review for employers in determining which tasks will invoke the exceptions to the going and coming rule. More importantly, while the court did analyze the case under the business situs exception, it still did not adopt it. As such, Iowa remains one of the twenty-eight states that still have not adopted that specific exception. 

The Search for “Bigfoot” Continues—The Iowa Court of Appeals Yet Again Finds Insufficient Evidence to Meet the Seemingly Unattainable Standard for Reversing for Workers’ Compensation Decisions

The search for the “Bigfoot” of the legal community continues, specifically the search for a case reversing final agency action on the ground that the agency’s action is unsupported by substantial evidence or is irrational, illogical, or wholly unjustifiable. In McComas-Lacina Construction v. Drake, McComas-Lacina, Mr. Drake’s employer, appealed the district court’s decision to affirm a workers’ compensation award in favor of Mr. Drake.  The employer argued that the determinations regarding Mr. Drake’s permanent total disability and date of last injury was “an abuse of discretion, irrational, illogical, unreasonable, unjustifiable, arbitrary and capricious, and error of law, and not supported by substantial evidence.”
 
In reviewing the case, the Iowa Court of Appeals recognized that the legislature granted the workers’ compensation commissioner the discretion to make factual determinations. Thus, district and appellate courts must affirm these factual determinations if they are supported by “substantial evidence in the record before the court when the record is viewed as a whole.” Substantial evidence is evidence of the quantity and quality that would be deemed sufficient by a neutral, detached, reasonable person to establish the fact at issue when the consequences of establishing that fact are of great importance. Iowa Code §17A.19(10)(f)(1). The court of appeals clarified that it would affirm a decision as having met the substantial evidence burden, even if the court would have come to a different conclusion as to the factual determinations. Because establishing the date injuries and deciding whether an employee is permanently and totally disabled are factual determinations, the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, concluding that there was little it could add the workers’ compensation court’s reasoning that supported these factual determinations.
 
As noted by the appellate court and evidenced through McComas, nearly all cases are won or lost in the workers’ compensation court. The Iowa Court of Appeals reinforced the widespread belief that a case reversing a final agency action on the ground that the determination was unsupportable by substantial evidence “is the Bigfoot of the legal community—an urban legend, rumored to exist but never confirmed.” Therefore, the search for "Bigfoot” continues.