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March 24, 2016

Texas Work Comp: Rising Above Critics

Summary:

Critical articles tend to be an accumulation of plaintiff attorney opinions and confusion by out-of-state persons.

Photo Courtesy of zombieite

Recently, published articles have been critical of the Texas workers’ compensation system and the choice of an “Option” available to Texas employers. Such articles tend to be an accumulation of plaintiff attorney opinions and confusion of out-of-state persons who do not have sufficient working knowledge of the subject matter. This article will address two recent examples:

  1. “The Status of Workers’ Compensation in the United States — A Special Report” by the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group (“WILG”).[1]

This is a group of attorneys supposedly “dedicated to representing the interests of millions of workers and their families.”[2]  Their paper is at best a rant against the original “grand bargain,” which was struck to create each state’s statutory workers’ compensation system. It is without virtually any legal citations or other back-up. It does, however, illustrate the wisdom of the Texas system in offering a choice — (1) workers’ compensation insurance or (2) the “nonsubscriber” Option. For example, the article notes that many physicians will not take workers’ compensation patients, that 33 states have cut workers’ compensation benefits and that insurance companies continually clamor for reform by lobbying legislatures to cut medical costs or implement other cost savings — all of which the authors say makes it more difficult for the injured worker to recover.

See Also: Who Is to Blame on Oklahoma Option?

The article changes course when it suddenly says that an option to workers’ compensation is at fault, boldly declaring that “opt-out is bad for everyone” and claiming that intervention by the federal government is “immediately needed.” WILG criticizes the no-fault workers’ compensation insurance system and in the same breath castigates those who elect the Texas Option and thrust themselves into the tort system, which plaintiff attorneys have long claimed they love. This is particularly perplexing for Texas readers in view of two factors: (1) the need for plaintiff attorneys has been largely eliminated from the Texas workers’ compensation system,[3] and (2) the fact that the Texas Option gives the injured employee the right to sue for negligence and recover actual and punitive damages. [4]

Responsible employers that elect the Texas Option establish injury benefit plans for medical, lost wage and other benefits.   The benefits are subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which provides numerous employee protections, including communication of rights and responsibilities, fiduciary requirements, and access to state and federal courts.[5] Only negligence liability claims against the employer can be forced into arbitration, which many employers insist upon as a more efficient method of dispute resolution that has been sanctioned for decades by both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Texas Supreme Court. Arbitration even supports awards for pain and suffering and punitive damages. In those cases, plaintiff attorneys have the advantage because an Option employer loses the defenses of contributory/comparative negligence, assumption of the risk or negligence of a fellow employee.

Perhaps the real reason why WILG is fighting Options to workers’ compensation is a combination of not wanting to learn how to succeed at ERISA litigation and fear that other workers’ compensation systems will become as efficient as the Texas system. Why aren’t these self-serving lawyers touting workers’ compensation Option that embraces the tort system they have so righteously pledged to protect?

  1. “Worse Than Prussian Chancellors: A State’s Authority to Opt-Out of the Quid Pro Quo” by Michael C. Duff, University of Wyoming College of Law, Jan. 9, 2016. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2713180

Professor Duff complains primarily about “compulsory arbitration” of workplace claims. He erroneously and boldly declares, “In states both retaining the exclusive remedy rule and allowing employers to opt-out of the workers’ compensation system, employees of opt-out employers are left with no legal remedy for workplace injury.[6]

This apparently refers to the Oklahoma Option, in which an employer can adopt an injury benefit plan with benefits at least equal to or greater than traditional system levels. Such a high benefit mandate may merit application of the “exclusive remedy rule,” which prevents an injured employee from suing their employer. However, Professor Duff overlooks the fact that ERISA provides injury claimants with extensive legal rights, including causes of action for wrongful denial of benefits, failure to produce documents, breach of fiduciary duty and discrimination (including retaliatory discharge). He also overlooks the fact that ERISA claims generally cannot be made subject to mandatory arbitration. [7] So, is this really a matter of having “no legal remedy” or a case of Professor Duff (who is also a WILG member) trying to support the positions and business of his plaintiff attorney friends?

See Also: Strategic Implications of the Oklahoma Option

Professor Duff makes it clear in the rest of his long article that the real enemy is an employer’s ability to implement a employment dispute resolution system that includes arbitration. Professor Duff omits the fact that he is bucking almost the entire U.S. judicial system, which endorses arbitration. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court clearly maintains that arbitration is right, proper and allowed.[8] “By agreeing to arbitrate a statutory claim, a party does not forego the substantive rights afforded by the statute, it merely results in submitting the resolution of the claim in “an arbitral, rather than judicial, forum.”[9] The Texas Supreme Court has been even more clear by stating that “. . . an agreement to arbitrate is a waiver of neither a cause of action nor the rights provided under [The Texas Labor Code]” and is not the denial of a right but rather simply “an agreement that those claims should be tried in a specific forum.”[10]

Oddly, when discussing his arguments against arbitration, Professor Duff states emphatically that it might be “acceptable if employees have knowingly signed pre-injury waivers of workers’ compensation benefits.” [11] What Professor Duff apparently does not understand is that pre-injury waivers of negligence claims have long ago been essentially outlawed in Texas, and an injured employee under the Texas Option retains his rights to sue the company for negligence. [12] The Texas Labor Code also specifies strict conditions under which an employee is allowed to even settle such a tort claim — i.e., only after at least 10 days have passed following the employee’s receipt of a medical evaluation from a non-emergency care doctor, the agreement is in writing with the “true intent of the parties as specifically stated in the document” and the provisions are “conspicuous and appear on the face of the agreement.”[13]

Like the WILG report, Professor Duff confuses benefit and liability exposures in Texas and Oklahoma, overlooks available legal remedies in both states and refuses to accept well-established public policy and judicial precedent that favors arbitration of employment-related claims.

Conclusion

The publication titled, “Non-Subscription: The Texas Advantage,” [14] states that, “Fortunately . . . legislators who drafted the first workers’ compensation laws in 1913 were farsighted enough to provide an option.” Employers that elect the Texas Option to workers’ compensation are subjected to an extra measure of liability as they cut out the middleman and decrease the taxpayer expense of the governmentally prescribed workers’ compensation system. Those Option employers that are operating legally and responsibly should be credited with advancements, such as improving worker access to better medical care, offering modified duty job availability and oftentimes providing better wage replacement benefits.

At the end of the day, perhaps WILG and Professor Duff should make an investment of their time to learn how ERISA protects injured workers and how to litigate an ERISA dispute. These authors should also further consider the ample remedies under Texas law for employer negligence liability, an exposure that provides more incentive to maintain a safe workplace.

No doubt, pursuing such claims does require some effort. Perhaps, therefore, the real objectives of these two papers is a desire to maintain the profitability of legal work favoring injured workers and reducing the attorney effort.

[1]https://s3.amazonaws.com/membercentralcdn/sitedocuments/wp/wp/0245/745245.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=0D2JQDSRJ497X9B2QRR2&Expires=1458161961&Signature=7rYh45nzAcLAZ%2BYqPx1HilrodQ4%3D&response-

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[2] www.wilg.org

[3] St. Mary’s Law Journal 2000, “Texas Workers’ Compensation: At Ten Year Survey – Strengths, Weaknesses and Recommendations,” Phil Hardburger, Chief Justice, Court of Appeals, Fourth District of Texas, San Antonio, page 3, 41, citing to research an oversight counsel on workers’ comp, an examination of strengths and weaknesses of the Texas Workers’ Compensation System (August, 1998).

[4] Tex. Lab. Code § 406.033 and Carlson’s Texas Employment Laws Annotated, 2015 Edition.

[5] 29 USC Chapter 18, Subtitle B, Parts 1, 4 and 5.

[6] Page 3 of Professor Duff’s treatise.

[7] 29 C.F.R. 2560.503-1(c)(4); see also Professor Duff’s footnote 26, stating “in Texas and Oklahoma, employers are able to combine opt-out with arbitration.”

[8] Scherk v. Alberto-Culver Company, 417 U.S. 506, 519, 94 S. Ct. 2449, 41 L. Ed. 2nd 270 (1974) (holding that arbitration clauses are, “in effect, a specialized kind of forum-selection clause.”)

[9] Id. at 631 quoting Mitsubishi Motors Corp v. Solar Chrysler-Plymouth, Inc., 473 U.S. 614, 628, 105 S. Ct. 3346, 87 L. Ed. 2d 444 (1985).

[10] In re Golden Peanut Company, LLC, 298 S.W.3d, 629 (Tex. 2009).

[11] Professor Duff at page 2.

[12] Tex. Lab. Code see 406.033(e) and (f) (a legal cause of action by an employee who claims to be injured on the job “may not be waived by an employee before the employee’s injury or death”); Tex. Lab. Code 406.033(a).

[13] Tex. Lab. Code 406.033(f) and (g).

[14] Published by the Texas Association of Business.

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About the Author

Gary Thornton is a partner at Jackson Walker, focusing on non-subscriber tort litigation and employment law defense. He wrote the foundation article for the Texas Bar Journal on non-subscriber litigation. He has represented companies all over Texas in both non-subscriber litigation and all areas of employment law.

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