Schnore v. Progress Rail Services – Death Benefits and Workers’ Compensation

Work-related injuries are an unfortunate reality of owning your own business. No matter how careful you try to be and how many safety measures you implement to help protect your workers, a work-related injury is bound to happen eventually. Hopefully, when it does occur, the injury will be minor and the employee’s recovery quick and relatively painless. Unfortunately, in some tragic cases, a work-related injury could result in the death of the employee. When this occurs, the surviving spouse or dependents will still be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. The California workers’ compensation system requires almost all employers to purchase workers’ compensation insurance to cover this very sort of scenario. However, the system is only set up to cover the employees of the business. Independent contractors are not covered under workers’ compensation insurance or benefits. However, the California labor code does not specifically define what it means to be an independent contractor. In a recent case, the California Court of Appeals was faced with a case involving the death of a worker and the classification of independent contractor versus worker.

In Schnore v. Progress Rail Services, a widow brought a claim for death benefits under the workers’ compensation system. Her husband died after suffering a fatal cardiac arrhythmia while driving a truck belonging to the defendant. The widow claimed that she was entitled to death benefits and her husband had been an employee. By contrast, the employer contended that the husband was an independent contractor, and therefore that the widow was not entitled to benefits under workers’ compensation. The court looked to the controlling case on the subject, S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations. In that case, the California Supreme Court set out a specific set of factors that will assist in determining if a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. In this case, the court considered the fact that the defendant was the one who established the pick up and drop off points for the deceased’s freight loads. The court determined that this method of control was key and that it suggested the deceased was an employee. The widow’s argument was also helped by the fact the trailer used by the deceased was a specialized trailer, which also suggested employment instead of being an independent contractor. The court accordingly rejected the employer’s independent contractor defense and ruled in favor of the widow.

Making a determination about worker classification can be crucial for your business. Call me today at (714) 516-8188. We can talk about your employees and your business.

Borello and Independent Contractor Inquiry

California law is quite clear about an employer’s responsibility to carry workers’ compensation insurance. With very few exceptions, California employers of almost any size are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance for all employees. There can be complicating issues, however, as not everyone who works for a business is considered an “employee” for purposes of this requirement. For example, independent contractors are not employees, and therefore employers do not have to carry workers’ compensation insurance that would cover independent contractors or their work-related injuries. Employers will sometimes misclassify an employee as an independent contractor, which can result in harsh penalties for the business and its owner. Unfortunately, there is not a statutory definition of “independent contractor” that is applicable to workers’ compensation. Instead, California courts have set out a list of factors to consider. Although labor code section 3357 makes the presumption that a worker is an employee, courts will look at other realities to determine if this is accurate. The California Supreme Court adopted a test in S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Dept. of Industrial Relations that is still important law concerning how to determine if a worker is an employee or an independent contractor.

In Borello, the California Supreme Court was met with the question of whether agricultural workers who were engaged to harvest cucumbers through a “sharefarmer” agreement were independent contractors or employees. The Borello court created an “economic realities” test. Under this test, the most important issues is the control that the employer or principal may exercise over the worker. The focus on what kind of control pivots on not only the type of work that is to be done, but also the manner and way in which it is actually done. In other words, if the employer is telling a worker that he or she must perform the work during certain hours and in a certain location, it makes it more likely that worker is actually an employee, and not an independent contractor. There is  a long list of other factors to consider, including whether or not the type of work to be done is the type usually done by the employer, whether the work done requires a special skill set, and whether the worker is to be paid according to the job or the time spent.

If you have concerns or questions about properly classifying your employees, contact me today at (714) 516-8188. I look forward to answering your questions and discussing your business.

Homeowner Issues – Are My Handman And/Or Nanny Covered?

In today’s busy world, it is common for both partners in a relationship to work full time outside of the home. To help get things done around the house, it is very common for people to hire outside help. This comes in many forms, including a handyman for odd jobs or a nanny to care for the children. When a couple decides to hire outside help, they need to be careful about workers’ compensation requirements in California. California Labor Code sections 3351 and 3352 provide guidance for homeowners thinking of bringing in outside parties to assist with household tasks.

California law requires almost all employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance for their employees. Labor Code 3351 has a long list of those who are included under the definition of “employee,” and subsection (d) provides that anyone who is employed by a homeowner “whose duties are incidental to the ownership, maintenance, or use of the dwelling, including the care and supervision of children” is considered an employee for purposes of workers’ compensation. The statute does, however, specifically refer to a set of exceptions found in section 3352(h). These exceptions state that if the employee was employed for less than 52 hours in the 90 calendar days preceding the date of the injury or if the employee earned less than $100 from the employer during those 90 days, then the person is not an employee for purposes of workers’ compensation.

With this in mind, the homeowner needs to carefully consider the type and frequency of work being performed by a handyman or nanny. According to the definition, a person who helped put up a fence or paint a house would not fall under the definition of employee, as long as the job took 51 hours or less. Similarly, an occasional babysitter would also not fall under the definition of employee. The law is more aimed at the type of worker who is regularly and frequently inside the home, performing regular work for the homeowner. In other words, a nanny or au pair, as opposed to a babysitter, and a regular maintenance person as opposed to an occasional handyman. If you are employing someone who fits these parameters, you are likely required to carry workers’ compensation insurance.

I have extensive experience helping clients understand their obligations under California workers’ compensation, contact me today at (714) 516-8188 to talk about your options.

How Important Are Documents in the Workers’ Compensation Process?

Lawsuits invariably involve a large amount of paperwork. The initial complaint, the response, discovery work, and motions can all contribute to the large volume. Workers’ compensation is no exception to this rule. In fact, meticulous and detailed documentation are essential to the workers’ compensation process. Documents that carefully detail processes and injuries both before, during, and after a work-related injury can drastically alter the course of a workers’ compensation case.

Before a work-related injury ever happens at your place of business, it is vital to make sure you provide accurate information to your workers’ compensation insurance company. Providing the required paperwork to the company in terms of the number of employees and the nature of your business will help make sure that in the event a work-related injury occurs and you have to file a claim on behalf of your business, the claim will not be denied because of inaccurate or incomplete information.

When an employee actually sustains a work-related injury, it is then vital to complete paperwork related to that injury as soon as possible. This paperwork will include the Claim Forms that you must provide to the insurance company. Providing detailed information about how the injury happened, as well as when and where, will arm the insurance company with important information allowing them to identify any red flags for fraud, malingering, or a pre-existing injury. Witness statements from other employees as well as a statement from the injured employee should be secured as quickly as possible to help nail down the details of what actually happened.

Medical documents from the injured employee’s health care provider are also very obviously central to the workers’ compensation system. The medical providers will determine the percentage of an employee’s injury, necessary course of treatment, and whether the injury is temporary or permanent. All of these will be instrumental in determining the amount and length of benefits an injured worker will receive. Moreover, these medical documents will allow for careful review of whether treatment is appropriate for the injury or whether an insurance company may need to call for an independent medical review.

If you have questions about the documents your business will need during a workers’ compensation suit, contact me today at (714) 516-8188. We can talk about your business and its workers’ compensation procedures.

Violent Acts and Workers’ Compensation

Work-related injuries can happen despite any and all precautions taken by an employer. Even the most careful preparations can fail to protect all employees from all types of injuries. The workers’ compensation system has been designed such that different injuries may receive different treatment with different types of requirements. One example of narrow or particular requirements is in the case of a work-related injury resulting from violent act.

Workers’ compensation is designed to address an injured worker’s work-related injuries. However, even if the injury is sustained due to willful violence from another worker, the injury is still compensable. For example, if an employee is assaulted by another employee while at work, those injuries will fall under the category of compensable work-related injury. Similarly, if the employee is assaulted by a client or customer, those injuries are also compensable under workers’ compensation. Simply because the assault should not occur during the course of employment or does not directly involve what is an employee’s job duties does not take it out of the realm of a compensable injury. For example, in a 2015 case, the WCAB found that a violent act included a situation when an employee sustained injury after being punched in the back of the head by another co-worker. Similarly, another case found it was a violent act where an employee was injured during a store robbery.

California labor code 3208.3 is one provision that addresses work-elated violent injury. Subsection (b)(2) specifically talks about psychiatric injury that is a result of a violent act. The statute provision states that if the psychiatric injury is resulted from being the victim of a violent act, the employee “shall be required to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that actual events of employment were a substantial cause of the injury.”  A recent case addressed this provision. Larsen v. Securitas Security Services involved a case where a security guard was hit by a car when she was walking through the parking lot, performing her regular duties. Among physical injuries, she also claimed psychiatric injuries arising from the violent act of being hit by the car. The WCAB agreed and pointed out that the injured employee was not required under 4660.1 to prove that the violent act was criminal in nature.

If you have questions about what qualifies as a violent act and how to protect your employees, you need to discuss it with an experienced attorney. Call me today at (714) 516-8188 and let me help you and your business.

Fraud and People v. Snow

The State of California has taken many steps in recent years and legislative sessions to lessen the amount of fraud perpetrated in the workers’ compensation system. During the fiscal year of 2015-2016, the California Fraud Division reported over 5,300 cases of suspected workers’ compensation fraud and made 249 arrests. Although the vast majority of employees who sustain a work-related injury have valid claims, there are some unfortunate cases when the employee is defrauding his or her employee. When this happens, employees may face criminal prosecution under a variety of legal theories.

In People v. Snow, the employee faced a number of repercussions for her fraudulent behavior. In that case, the defendant worked at Trader Joe’s stocking shelves, gathering shopping carts from the parking lot, customer service, and other similar tasks. The defendant made a claim for workers’ compensation claiming that her wrist hurt and she had sustained injury from repetitive action required in performing her job duties. The defendant’s claim was approved for three months of disability benefits. After the defendant returned to work, she claimed on her first day back to have injured her back while bringing three shopping carts in from the parking lot. Although she was later cleared to return to work, she did not do so, and instead sought treatment from a new doctor, claiming she had pain while doing household tasks such as laundry, dishes, and driving – claims she repeated during a deposition. The supervisory claims adjustor determined the second claim required further investigation and hired a private investigator. The investigator observed her at the beach, lifting a paddleboard from the roof of her SUV and carrying it and the paddle approximately 150 feet to the beach. After paddleboarding for approximately 45 minutes, the defendant returned to shore and carried the paddleboard and paddle back to the SUV and strapped the on the roof herself. Nevertheless, the defendant persisted in telling her doctors she could not lift things over her shoulder or stand for prolonged periods of time, which she repeated during depositions. Ultimately, the defendant was charged with perjury after the video of the defendant at the beach completely undermined her claim of disability. Thereafter, the defendant was charged not only with insurance fraud but also with perjury based on statements made at depositions concerning her second workers’ compensation claim. She was ultimately convicted of two counts of perjury as well as three counts of making false or fraudulent statements to obtain workers’ compensation benefits. Although the defendant then appealed her conviction claiming that this violated her right against double jeopardy as the convictions were based on the same incidents, the court disagreed and affirmed her convictions.

Workers’ compensation fraud is a serious problem and you should take all steps to protect your business. Contact me today at (714) 516-8188 if you wish to discuss fraud and protect your  business.

IMR in 2016

When an employee is injured on the job, he or she will need to get medical treatment to proceed with a workers’ compensation claim. The physician will make an assessment of the injury and decide what type of course of treatment will be best to treat and hopefully cure the injured employee. In some situations, an employer can request an Independent Medical Review of the physician’s diagnosis and treatment plan. When a claim is made for workers’ compensation, the claim must go through a “utilization review” process in order to confirm the treatment is medically necessary before the claim is paid out. If the claim is denied, the employee may request an IMR. If an employer believes the claim should not have been approved, the employer may request an IMR. The purpose of instituting the IMR system was done with an eye toward reducing workers’ compensation disputes and speeding settlement, in order to help ease the congestion in the court. A recent analysis done of IMR volume shows that the process is perhaps not meeting its intended purpose.

The California Workers’ Compensation Institute conducted an analysis of almost half a million IMR decision letters from 2014, 2015, and 2016. These letters were from applications submitted to the state after a utilization review physician’s medical service was modified or denied. In 2016, IMR was at record high levels, with 10,477 more cases in 2016 than in 2015. The IMR analysis showed that in over 90% of cases, the IMR upheld the decision to modify or deny a requested medical service. The types of services did not change much, with prescription drug requests comprising over half of all IMRs, 28.5% of which were for opioids. The rate at which the IMRs upheld the decision made by the utilization review varied from 78.9% for evaluation services to 93.6% for acupuncture. The analysis also found that IMR requests varied widely by geographic region, with Los Angeles County and the Bay area representing a disproportionately large amount of IMR requests vis a vis their percentage of involvement in workers’ compensation medical services across the state. Similarly, areas with low population typically had a disproportionately small amount of IMRs, as did Orange County and San Diego.

If you own your own business, you need an experienced attorney to help you navigate the system. Call us today at (714) 516-8188. I can help you understand your business’s obligations and the claims process.

Communication versus Information – Maxham vs. Department of Corrections

 

In an overwhelming majority of court cases, the parties settle before ever having to see the inside of a court room. The field of workers’ compensation is no exception. Attorneys for both sides are typically experienced and are skilled in obtaining reasonable settlement agreements. There is a lot of paperwork and material exchanged by the attorneys in an effort to get to a settlement or prepare for trial. In some cases, the parties may agree to use an “Agreed Medical Evaluator” in order to help get to a proper settlement. The AME will examine and evaluate the injured worker and determine the level of disability or impairment. In preparation for this evaluation, the attorneys may also send certain letters to the AME. California Labor Code 4062.3 contains rules about what can and cannot be sent to the AME before the evaluation, including medical records from current and previous treating physicians. The attorney may also provide a letter “outlining the medical determination of the primary treating physician,” and a copy of that letter must also be served on the opposing party at least twenty days before the evaluation. Subsection (d) states that if the opposing party objects within ten days to any non-medical records or “information” that is proposed to be sent to the AME, the information shall not be sent unless a judge approves it. An attorney may communicate with the AME without the approval of the other attorney for purposes such as furnishing records and reports or other “nonsubstantive matters.” The difference between “communication” and “information” is therefore crucial, as communication without the “go ahead” from the opposing side is permissible, whereas passing information is not.

In Maxham v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the WCAB was faced with the task of clarifying the difference between communication and information. In that case, the applicant’s attorney provided the employer’s attorney with a copy of the proposed “communication” to the AME, which included factual assertions, citation to case law, and summaries of legal principles. The defendant’s attorney timely objected to the letter and asked for portions to be redacted. The attorney for the employee sent the unredacted letter. The WCAB determined that “information” in these cases constitutes records prepared or maintained by a physician and/or medical and nonmedical relevant records. A communication can become information if it contains, references, or encloses medical or non-medical records that are otherwise “information.”

If you have questions about workers’ compensation, call us today at (714) 516-8188. We will discuss your business and what you can do to make sure you are facing workers’ compensation issues head on.

Teachers and Workers’ Compensation

The workers’ compensation system is designed such that an employee may receive proper compensation for injuries that “aris[e] out of and in the course of employment.”  The whole system is designed around the idea that if an employee is injured because of actions taken on behalf of an employer, the employer should assist in taking care of the cost of the employee’s health care and compensate him or her for temporary or permanent disability arising from such an injury. The real issue can come into play, however, when deciding whether an injury really did arise out of and in the course of employment, as happened for one teacher.

This was precisely the central issue in an unpublished case styled Grawe v. Culver City Unified School District. There, the applicant was a school teacher. She sought a determination that she had sustained an 82% permanent disability due to hypertension and psoriatic arthritis. The AME found that “it was medically probable that applicant developed viral cardiomyopathy as a result of contracting respiratory tract infections because of being exposed to communicable viruses from her students.”  As a result of the repeated virus illnesses, the applicant’s hypertension was triggered and exacerbated. In other words, the applicant claimed because she got so many colds from her students as a teacher, she sustained a permanent disability. Her claim was that but for this repeated exposure, she would not have become permanently disabled, thereby making this a work-related injury entitling her to workers’ compensation benefits for her permanent disability. The court looked to the reasoning from a case called LaTourette v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board and Long Beach Community College District. The court there held “When an employee engages in a special activity that is within the course of employment, an injury suffered during the activity . . . also arises out of the employment.”  It was essential that the employee was at an increased risk compared to the general public of that danger. The court in Grawe determined that the teacher was, indeed, at increased personal risk for repeated viral infections because of being exposed to her students. Her claim was, accordingly, upheld.

If you have questions about these new regulations, contact me today at (714) 516-8188. We can review your business and make sure that you are in compliance with the reporting requirements.

Apportionment and Genetic Causation

Despite all of the careful precautions and preparations, work-related injuries are an inevitable part of owning a business. Employers always reduce risks to their employees when possible, but accidents happen. After an employee suffers a work-related injury and files a claim for workers’ compensation, it is possible that the medical documents will reveal the employee has a pre-existing injury or condition that was aggravated by the work-related injury. When this happens, the portion of the disability attributable to the pre-existing condition must be apportioned. Apportionment means that a medical professional will make a determination on how much of the worker’s injury and disability is attributable to the work-related injury and how much is attributable to the pre-existing condition. A recent case before the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board dealt with the issue of apportionment and genetic conditions.

In City of Jackson v. WCAB (Christopher Rice), a police officer who had served on the force for five years filed a claim, stating that repetitive bending and twisting of his neck while on the job had resulted in an injury, and was the cause of pain to his neck, shoulder, arm, and hand. Medical examinations and x-rays revealed the officer had a degenerative disc disease, cervical radiculopathy, and cervical disc disease. The QME report indicated that genetic issues were a causative factor for this injury, and apportionment was appropriate. The trial judge apportioned 49% of the injury to the officer’s genetic condition, but the WCAB reversed that decision. The court ruled that “finding causation on applicant’s ‘genetics’ opens the door to apportionment of disability to impermissible immutable factors.”  The court found that relying on the QME report for apportionment was inappropriate in this case without specific, identifiable factors. The WCAB’s decision was appealed by the employer and was heard by the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals determined there was “no relevant distinction” between allowing apportionment due to non-industrial pathological changes and allowing apportionment due to a degenerative genetic condition. The court accordingly held that apportionment was appropriate in this case, even though it was based on a genetic condition. The court did not address whether certain anti-discrimination statutes prohibited apportionment due to genetic condition, as the issue was not raised in the lower court.

Apportionment is just one of many complicated issues in workers’ compensation Contact us today at (714) 516-8188 to talk about claims facing your business.

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