Category Archives: Workers’ Compensation

2014 Top Ten Workers’ Compensation Fraud Cases

Today’s post comes from guest author Leonard Jernigan, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

  Number Value
Non-Employee Fraud Cases 9 $ 74,876,000.00
Employee Fraud Cases 1 $ 450,000.00
Total $ 75,326,000.00

Five of the top ten fraud cases in 2014 are from California. The other five cases are from Florida, Texas, Arizona, Washington and Georgia. As usual, non-employee fraud cases dominated the list and the dollar amounts are staggering, led by the $36 million over-billing case out of southern California. An emerging issue is the misclassification of workers, and we will likely see more of these cases in 2015 as enforcement steps up in this area.

1. (California) Medical Equipment Company Overbills $36 Million (3/17/14)

The owners of Aspen Medical Resources were indicted in on 49 felony counts of fraud.
The owners of Aspen Medical Resources were indicted in on 49 felony counts of fraud.

The owners of Aspen Medical Resources had all their assets seized and put into receivership by the Orange County District Attorney. They were indicted in on 49 felony counts of fraudulent overbilling of $36 million for hot-cold physical therapy machines. Although these machines retail between $250 and $500 Aspen often billed Southern California workers’ compensation claims departments thousands of dollars each time a machine was rented.  

2. (California) 15 Medical Professionals Indicted in $25 Million Scheme – Small Child Dies (6/24/14)

Ahmed Kareem, one of 15 doctors accused of participating in a workers’ compensation scam.
Dr. Ahmed Kareem   is accused of participating in a workers’ comp scam.

Fifteen doctors, pharmacists and other medical professionals in Southern California were charged in a $25 million workers’ compensation scam which was linked to the death of a baby. Prosecutors alleged insurance fraud and conspiracy in the 44 count indictment which detailed that the head of a workers’ compensation claims management firm hired pharmacists to produce a pain-relief cream and then gave kickbacks to the doctors that prescribed it and conspired to submit phony claims. A 5-month old boy ate the cream and died when his mother, who was using the prescribed cream for back and knee pain, allowed her son to suck her fingers to sooth him. The next morning he was found dead and tests showed he had ingested lethal amounts of drugs in this cream.

3. (California) Lowe’s Settled Independent Contractor Misclassification Case for $6.5 Million (7/3/14)

Lowe’s misclassified its installers as independent contractors, rather than employees.
Lowe’s misclassified its installers as independent contractors, rather than employees.

Over 4,000 “Lowe’s professionals” in California are members of a class action alleging that Lowe’s misclassified its installers as independent contractors, rather than employees, thus depriving them of a variety of employee benefits, from workers’ compensation insurance coverage to 401(k) plan participation. Lowe’s, without admitting liability, recently settled the case after mediation for a sum that could be as much as $6.5 million. The plaintiffs claimed that Lowe’s retained and exercised control over their work by requiring them to identify themselves as working for Lowe’s, wear Lowe’s hats and shirts, and attend training by Lowe’s.

4. (California) Paving Company Cheats System of $4 Million (6/19/14)

Sabas & Lucia Trujillo
Sabas & Lucia Trujillo face criminal charges for workers’ comp’ fraud.

Five owners (Sabas Trujilo, Lucia Trujilo, Rick Trujilo, Laura Fitzpatrick and Alex Trujilo), operators and employees of a Corona, California based paving company are facing criminal charges for alleged wage theft, premium fraud, workers’ compensation and payroll fraud. The Riverside County District Attorney’s Office alleges that the individuals’ criminal actions enabled them to illegally obtain about $4 million. After launching an investigation, the state obtained search warrants for both companies, seizing computers and bank, payroll and other documents. The state conducted several wage audits on several hundred projects, which ultimately led to the filing of criminal charges.

5. (Florida) False Insurance Certificates Check Cashing Scheme Defrauds Insurance Company of $1 Million (11/18/14)

Arturo Santos Zuniga paid laborers cash to avoid paying workers' comp'.
Arturo Santos Zuniga paid laborers cash to avoid paying workers’ comp.

Arturo Santos Zuniga, who also went by the name David Hernandez, was busted for paying laborers in cash to avoid paying workers’ compensation insurance premiums. Zuniga paid a North Lauderdale man to create and insure a fake or “shell” company, Behar Services Incorporated, and “rented” out insurance certificates to uninsured subcontractors in South Florida. Payments to the uninsured subcontractors were made through checks to the fake company, which were then cashed at check cashing stores. Behar Services Incorporated got its insurance policy by saying it had 10 employees doing carpentry and office work with an annual payroll of $210,000. The annual premium was about $26,500. Law enforcement financial reports show that just in the months from July to October, more than $7.3 million had been cashed out at check cashing stores to Behar Services Incorporated and/or the North Lauderdale man who started the company. A $7.3 million payroll would have cost more than $1 million more than the existing policy. No estimate of lost tax revenue was given.

6. (Texas) Man to Pay $806,000 for Underreporting Payroll to Workers’ Comp Carrier (3/11/14)

Howard Douglas Whiddon of Travis County was ordered to pay $806,000 in restitution.
Howard Douglas Whiddon was ordered to pay $806,000.

Howard Douglas Whiddon was ordered to pay $806,000 in restitution to workers’ compensation insurer Texas Mutual Insurance Co. after pleading guilty to workers’ comp fraud-related charges. He intentionally misrepresented the payroll of a related company, thus lowering his premiums. Mr. Whiddon was sentenced by a Travis County, Texas court to 10 years of deferred adjudication and 160 hours of community service.

7. (Arizona) Paul Johnson Drywall Inc. Agreed to Pay $600,000 in Back Wages, Damages and Penalties to 445 Employees (5/19/14)

Paul Johnson Drywall Inc. classified its workers as “members/owners” instead of employees.
Paul Johnson Drywall Inc. classified its workers as “members/owners” instead of employees.

Paul Johnson Drywall Inc. classified its workers as “members/owners” instead of employees, which stripped them of workers’ compensation and other protections afforded to employees. The owner, Robert Cole Johnson agreed to take concrete steps to ensure that misclassification of its workforce does not occur again and to pay $556,000.00 in overtime back wages and liquidated damages to at least 445 current and former employees. The employer also agreed to pay $44,000.00 in civil monetary penalties. Investigators found that the drywall contractor violated the Fair Labor Standards Act overtime and record-keeping provisions.

8. (Washington) Summit Drywall, Inc. Ordered to Pay $550,000 in Unpaid Wages and Damages to 384 Workers (2/20/14)

The owner of Summit Drywall, Inc. was ordered to pay damages to 384 employees.
Summit Drywall’s owner was ordered to pay damages to employees.

Thomas Kauzlarich, the owner of Summit Drywall, Inc. was ordered to pay $550,000 in overtime back wages and liquidated damages to 384 current and former employees. An investigation showed that the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime and record-keeping provisions from October 15, 2009 to April 15, 2013. The article did not report the amount of reduced workers’ compensation premiums paid.

9. (Georgia) Nurse Gets 5 Years in Prison for $450,000 Bogus Workers’ Comp Claims (8/26/14)

A VA nurse from Glenwood, GA, will serve five years in prison for mail fraud and fraudulent claims.
A VA nurse from Glenwood, GA, will serve five years in prison for mail fraud and mailing fraudulent claims.[/caption] Loretta Smith, a VA nurse from Glenwood, GA, will serve five years in prison and must repay $450,000.00 in federal funds by filing bogus workers’ compensation claims, pleading guilty to two counts of mail fraud in the mailing of fraudulent claims, in which she received more than $450,000.00. She agreed to forfeit the equivalent of $454,740.06 in cash, real estate and other property. She was also sentenced to three years probation after her release.
10. (California) Drywall Company Owners Arraigned on $420,000 in Fraud Charges (12/11/14) The owners of a defunct drywall company, National Drywall in San Bernardino, CA, were arraigned on charges that they defrauded their workers’ compensation insurance carrier of $260,000.00 and stole $160,000.00 from their workers.
 
Honorable Mention 

(Oregon) Uncooperative Hillsboro Businessman Convicted of $481,519 Tax Evasion – Only Gets 30 Days In Jail (9/30/14)

Stephen Nagy engaged in fraudulent schemes to evade payment of payroll taxes.
Stephen Nagy engaged in fraudulent schemes to evade payment of payroll taxes.

Stephen Nagy was the former president of Hillsboro-based S&S Drywall Assemblies. The IRS assessed the company $481,519 in federal employment taxes, penalties and interest between June 2009 and September 2010. Nagy met with the IRS and chose not to comply with the payment plan and engaged in a variety of interrelated fraudulent schemes to evade the payment of the delinquent payroll taxes. Nagy intimidated, manipulated, and threatened the loss of much needed jobs to gain the cooperation of his employees. Special agents of the IRS learned that Nagy had transferred all of S&S Drywall Assemblies income, contracts, receivables and assets to ASM Drywall, Inc. a shell company he created and placed in his sister’s name. The Oregon attorney general prosecuted Nagy in 2011 on allegations of criminal anti-trust and racketeering. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and five years of supervised probation.

 
For more information, contact:
Leonard T. Jernigan, Jr.
Adjunct Professor of Workers’ Compensation
N.C. Central University School of Law
The Jernigan Law Firm
2626 Glenwood Avenue, Suite 330
Raleigh, North Carolina 27608
(919) 833-0299
neb@jernlaw.com
Website: www.jernlaw.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jerniganlawfirm
Twitter: @jernlaw
Blog: www.ncworkcompjournal.com

Injured Worker Stakeouts: Do Private Investigators Commit Fraud?

Today’s post comes from guest author Leonard Jernigan, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

Have you noticed a suspicious vehicle lurking in your neighborhood lately, or is there a stranger that seems to be everywhere you go? If you have an active workers’ compensation claim, then you may not be imaging things. More and more, we are seeing insurance companies willing to spend thousands of dollars to hire private investigators to conduct clandestine surveillance of an injured worker’s daily activities and documenting these activities with video cameras. This type of surveillance often comes as a shock to our clients.

When these situations arise, the question we hear most often is, “Can they do that? Is this legal?” The answer is yes. Private investigators may photograph or video people in their private residences so long as they are clearly visible to the general public and there is no expectation of privacy. They can also conduct a full background investigation and obtain information about any other claims you made for personal injuries or if you have ever been charged with a crime.

While there are honest private investigators in the field, there are also those who will cheat. One investigator deflated an injured worker’s tire and then videotaped the person “working” to fix the flat tire. Another investigator reported talking on the phone to someone who told him that an injured worker was working while also receiving workers’ compensation benefits. A follow up done by our firm proved that the person with whom the investigator claimed to have talked has a serious hearing impairment and could not use the telephone.  

Injured workers need to be aware that surveillance can happen in any case. It has become part of the workers’ compensation system. By the way, if you do notice a suspicious car parked near your home, call the police.

Retaliation / Refusal to Rehire in Worker’s Compensation

If an employer terminates an employee because of a work injury, or unreasonably refuses to rehire the employee after a compensable work injury, a penalty of up to one year’s lost wages applies. The purpose of Wisconsin’s statute is to prevent discrimination against employees who previously sustained injuries and if there are positions available within the injured employee’s restrictions, to assure the injured person goes back to work with his former employer.

This statutory protection is an exception to the general rule of “at will” employment in Wisconsin – where an employer can hire, fire, and make employment decisions for any reason or no reason at all, except for a discriminatory reason defined by law such as race, gender or religion. Under the Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Law §102.35(3) a work injury is essentially an additional protected category. In a Refusal to Rehire case, the worker need not prove the reason for discharge in order to make a claim. In fact, the worker satisfies his burden of proof by showing he was an employee with a compensable injury who was subsequently denied rehire. Once established, the burden shifts to the employer to show reasonable cause for not rehiring the applicant. (Other States have similar provisions. See, for example, Ohio Code 4123.90 with similar anti-retaliation provisions.) The burden-shifting model recognizes the realities of the employment relationship and disparate access to information. The employee generally has limited means to prove the “real reason” for his discharge, so the burden is on the employer to establish good cause when the burden shifts.

Cost Shifting: Worker’s Compensation Dirty Little Secret

Today I taught worker’s compensation “Offsets” in the course I teach at Marquette Law School. The students were aghast at the amount of “cost shifting” that occurs in worker’s compensation: that is, medical costs paid by a variety of sources other than worker’s compensation for medical expenses that should be paid by the worker’s compensation insurer.

We all pay an additional price for medical costs borne by group health insurance carriers, Medicaid, and Medicare that should in fact be paid by worker’s compensation insurers. This “cost shifting” occurs in two significant ways. First, if the claim is denied by the worker’s compensation insurance carrier, medical costs may be paid by the worker’s group health insurance or other private insurance company, or through State Medicaid or federal Medicare programs (the cost of which we all pay in taxes). When those claims are settled, the worker’s compensation insurer routinely saves money by reduced negotiated payment contracts with medical providers, between the provider and the group health carrier, Medicare, or Medicaid (rather than the “full boat” payments that should be paid by the worker’s compensation insurer). If the treatment is deemed work-related after a hearing, the worker’s compensation insurer will pay the other insurer, but at reduced rates.

Second, since only about one in ten cases involves any kind of litigation, workers who are not represented routinely bill their group or other insurance carrier for medical treatment that should be paid by worker’s compensation. Bolstering this notion is a recent article in the Insurance Journal. In the article Jonathan Gruber, Professor of Economics at M.I.T. was quoted indicating that worker’s compensation carriers should see fewer claims as a result of more Americans obtaining health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. He said “As more people have health insurance there is less need for them to have injuries covered by worker’s compensation and this should lower worker’s compensation costs.” Nowhere in this analysis is the notion that the appropriate payor for a worker’s compensation injury should be a worker’s compensation insurer, not health insurance premiums (which are shared by us all) nor Medicare and Medicaid (again shared by us all in the form of taxes).

Workers hurt on the job should have their medical treatment paid by the worker’s compensation insurer, who has received a premium for that risk from the worker’s employer. Cost shifting may increase worker’s compensation profits, but it hurts both the employers’ and the employees’ bottom line.

Health Care Testing: A New Frontier for Worker’s Comp

As a worker’s compensation lawyer, I see many news stories through the prism of how the news event or trend will affect injured workers in the worker’s compensation system. A federal judge in Minnesota has ruled that Honeywell, Inc. can begin penalizing workers who refuse to take medical or biometric tests. 

The EEOC had claimed Honeywell’s policy violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. They filed a lawsuit in Minneapolis on behalf of two Minnesota employees of Honeywell.

The tests Honeywell required their employees to take measured blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose, as well as signs that employee had been smoking. Employees who declined to take the test could be fined up to $4,000 in surcharges and increased health costs. Honeywell said the program is designed to “encourage employees to live healthier lifestyles and to lower health care costs.” Honeywell says the testing promotes employee well-being. Management also indicated “We don’t believe it’s fair to the employees who do work to lead healthier lifestyles to subsidize the healthcare premiums for those who do not.”

The ramifications of such testing for worker’s compensation immediately come to mind. In any kind of an occupational exposure claim, such tests could be used to help deny worker’s compensation claims for employees who smoke, are overweight, have diabetic condition, claims involving occupational back conditions, carpal tunnel claims, and any kind of respiratory complaints. Another “slippery slope” may be the use of these kinds of testing to actually screen prospective employees, since the employer rationale would be that hiring folks with those pre-existing conditions would cost the employer more money.

Does Workers’ Compensation Cover Ebola?

Today’s post comes from guest author Brody Ockander, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore, in Nebraska. The law in Wisconsin would be similar for a healthcare worker who contracted Ebola during the course and scope of their employment.

The recent news of Ebola in the United States has given me pause to think whether the nurses in Texas who contracted the Ebola virus are covered under the workers’ compensation system.

Here in Nebraska, the nurses with Ebola would almost certainly be covered. In Nebraska, occupational diseases are covered as long as the illness or injury was peculiar to the particular trade or employment. Generally, regular diseases that the general public is exposed to are not covered occupational diseases. For example, influenza, colds, or even MRSA (a type of antibiotic-resistant infection) would probably not be covered for a healthcare worker. Those diseases could be contracted in limitless places or circumstances. However unlike those diseases, I would think that Ebola coming from one single, easily identifiable source would be covered and would easily be proven to have come from the job of being that patient’s nurse.

Let’s just hope we never get to a point where Ebola becomes widespread enough that it would not be a covered occupational disease. If it does, we will have more problems than the compensability of a workers’ compensation claim. 

Worker’s Compensation Benefits Increase; Employers Costs Historically Low

A new study released by the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) indicates worker’s compensation benefits rose by 1.3% to $61.9 billion in 2012 while employer costs rose by 6.9% to $83.2 billion. Even though total benefits and costs increased in 2012, worker’s compensation benefits and costs per $100 of covered payroll have been lower from 2007 to 2012 than at any time over the last 30 years. In 2012 benefits were 98 cents per $100 of covered payroll while employer costs were $1.32 per $100 of covered payroll. 

Over the last 30 years medical benefits have accounted for an increasing share of total benefits from 33% in 1984 to nearly 50% in 2012. Medical benefits accounted for almost 50% of the $61 billion in total benefits paid. In Wisconsin medical benefits exceed cash benefits, indicating that medical cost containment is a significant issue.

The Academy’s report Worker’s Compensation: Benefits Coverage and Costs 2012 is the 17th in an annual survey. The report provides the nation’s only comprehensive data on worker’s compensation benefits coverage and employer costs.

Death Of A Client

The circle of life always moves forward, with death as the single, inevitable constant. Despite that knowledge, I am always taken aback when I receive word that one of my clients has passed away. Unfortunately, this happens on numerous occasions throughout the year.  Some individuals pass away from the effects of a work injury, and of course, others for a variety of causes both known and unknown.

A worker’s passing is always difficult for family and friends, including myself and our office staff who represented the worker. For many workers, our office has a profound and intimate involvement in their case, including a multitude of in-person conversations and phone communications (many involving significant and meaningful conversations related to the individual’s family and health, well-being, and status for the future).

When an injured worker dies, there is some potential relief for that worker’s dependents in the form of a death benefit claim. While no monetary compensation can be sufficient for a worker’s death, the Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Act does provide the potential for some benefits for those left behind. 

Specifically, if a worker dies from the effects of a work injury or if a permanently totally disabled employee dies, there is the potential for a death benefit equal to four times the worker’s annual earnings. Statutory “total” dependents are determined by the law: a surviving spouse, a domestic partner who lived with the deceased, or a surviving child under the age of 18 years old (or older if physically or mentally incapacitated). Other rules apply if there are no statutory dependents for those deemed “partially” dependent on the deceased injured worker (partial dependency is capped at two times the deceased’s annual salary). 

Other rules apply under the Worker’s Compensation Act if an injured worker – who has permanent partial disability (PPD) left to be paid – dies with some PPD still owing. Unaccrued permanency disability benefits can be payable to dependents as death benefits, as well. 

Additionally, burial expenses (up to $10,000) are payable in all cases where an employee dies from a work injury, regardless of whether or not there are dependents. 

The rules for dependency benefits, admittedly, are convoluted and difficult to decipher. The rules about who is a total or partial dependent can be confusing and difficult to follow. Competent worker’s compensation counsel is necessary to navigate the ability to pursue a death benefit.