Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in North Dakota Supreme Court
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Robyn Krile appealed from a district court order granting defendant Julie Lawyer’s motion to dismiss under N.D.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In February 2017, Assistant State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer received an anonymous letter concerning a Bismarck police officer's destruction of evidence. Lawyer averred her decision to review the officer files was to ensure the state’s attorney’s office was fulfilling its disclosure obligations under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150 (1972). As part of her investigation, Lawyer reviewed the file of Sergeant Robyn Krile. In Krile’s file, Lawyer discovered two letters of reprimand and several performance evaluations, which Lawyer believed raised Giglio issues. Lawyer further investigated the incidents for which the letters of reprimand were issued, and concluded Krile had made false statements as a Bismarck police officer. Lawyer shared her belief that the letters of reprimand and performance evaluations raised Giglio concerns with Bismarck Police Chief Dan Donlin. Chief Donlin disagreed and advised Lawyer that he did not see the incidents for which the letters of reprimand were issued as amounting to Giglio issues. Despite Chief Donlin’s pleas, Lawyer continued to believe Krile’s conduct amounted to a Giglio issue. Lawyer informed Chief Donlin that the results of her investigation would have to be disclosed to defense in cases in which Krile was involved pursuant to Giglio and, as a result, the Burleigh County State’s Attorney’s Office would no longer use Krile as a witness in its cases. Because the Burleigh County State’s Attorney’s Office was no longer willing to use Krile as a witness in its cases, the Bismarck Police Department terminated Krile’s employment. Krile filed a complaint with the Department of Labor and Human Rights claiming the Bismarck Police Department discriminated against her. After review, the North Dakota Supreme Court reversed dismissal of Krile's defamation claims for Lawyer's disclosure of the results of her investigation (the Giglio letter) to Chief Donlin. The Court affirmed dismissal of Krile’s defamation claims for Lawyer’s disclosure of the Giglio letter and affidavits to the Department of Labor and Human Rights because the communications were absolutely privileged. On remand, the district court may decide whether Lawyer’s communications to Chief Donlin and the POST Board are entitled to a qualified privilege. View "Krile v. Lawyer" on Justia Law

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North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance (WSI) appealed a district court judgment reversing an administrative law judge’s (ALJ) decision terminating Gregory Beam’s benefits. Beam was injured in 2016 while working for his employer, Gagnon, Inc. (Gagnon), installing sheets of metal. At the time Beam applied for workers compensation benefits, Gagnon submitted a job description for machinist as Beam’s position with the company at the time of his injuries. A Functional Capacity Evaluation identified Beam could occasionally climb ladders and kneel, but was unable to crouch or crawl. After completion of the evaluation, WSI identified Beam’s transferable skills and physical capabilities. WSI determined Beam’s pre-injury occupation was that of a sheet metal worker, not a machinist as submitted by Gagnon. WSI forwarded a list of job descriptions to Beam’s treating physician, Dr. Kelly, for approval. The description for the physical requirements of a machinist stated the position required “[o]ccasional stooping, kneeling and crouching;” the description for a sheet metal worker were "“[f]requent stooping, handling and reaching & occasional fingering.” Dr. Kelly did not approve Beam returning to work as a machinist, stating, “I don’t think the knee will tolerate the potential kneeling.” Dr. Kelly did approve Beam returning to work as a sheet metal worker. Based on Dr. Kelly’s approval for Beam to return to work as a sheet metal worker, WSI determined Beam could return to work in the same occupation, any employer, and discontinued Beam’s benefits. The ALJ found the job description of a machinist did not match Beam’s pre-injury profession. The ALJ found the preponderance of the evidence established Beam could return to the occupation of sheet metal worker, but could not return to his pre-injury position with Gagnon. The district court determined the ALJ’s findings of fact were not supported by a preponderance of the evidence and reversed. Applying its deferential standard of review, the North Dakota Supreme Court concluded there was evidence in the record from which a reasoning mind could have reasonably concluded WSI’s rehabilitation plan would return Beam to substantial gainful employment. It therefore reversed the district court and reinstated the ALJ's decision. View "Beam v. WSI et. al." on Justia Law

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Workforce Safety & Insurance (WSI) appealed a district court judgment affirming the administrative law judge’s (ALJ) order concluding Isai Avila was entitled to both the scheduled permanent partial impairment award for vision loss and whole body permanent partial impairment award for additional injuries to his cervical spine, facial bone, acoustic nerve, and brain. In 2015, Avila fell on ice carrying a railroad tie while employed by SM Fencing & Energy Services, Inc., and sustained injuries. WSI issued an order awarding permanent impairment benefits of $34,000 to Avila. Avila requested a hearing. During a second review Avila underwent a permanent impairment evaluation. The evaluation determined Avila had 29% whole body permanent partial impairment which included 16% whole body impairment for vision loss of Avila’s left eye. WSI concluded under N.D.C.C. 65-05-12.2(11) that Avila was entitled to the greater of either the scheduled impairment award or the whole body impairment award, but not both. WSI issued a notice of decision confirming no additional award of permanent impairment benefits was due. Avila again requested a hearing after reconsideration. The sole issue at the administrative hearing was interpretation of the portion of N.D.C.C. 65-05-12.2(11). and whether the statute applied to the same work-related injury or condition, and not impairments for the same work-related incident. Since Avila’s loss of vision in his left eye was the same work-related injury or condition for which Avila received a 100 permanent impairment multiplier (PIM) scheduled injury award, the “loss of vision in left eye” component of the 29% whole body impairment must be subtracted from the award to determine Avila’s additional permanent impairment benefits. The ALJ concluded the additional injuries were not the same work-related injury or condition as the vision loss, and N.D.C.C. 65-05-12.2(11) was not applicable. Therefore, the ALJ determined Avila was entitled to both the scheduled impairment award for vision loss and the whole body impairment award for his additional injuries. The North Dakota Supreme Court found that because Avila had an injury set out in N.D.C.C. 65-05-12.2(11), he was entitled to the greater of the combined rating for all accepted impairments under the AMA Guides or the injury schedule. Here, N.D.C.C. 65-05-12.2(11) provided the greater PIM. Accordingly, WSI correctly determined Avila’s award. The ALJ judgment was not in accordance with the law. The Supreme Court therefore reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings. View "WSI v. Avila, et al." on Justia Law

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Dylan Devore appealed summary judgments dismissing his negligence and gross negligence claims against defendants American Eagle Energy Corporation, Integrated Petroleum Technologies, Inc. (“IPT”), and Brian Barony. Devore was a crew supervisor for Fort Berthold Services (“FBS”), which provided water transfer services for hydraulic fracturing operations at oil wells. In February 2014, American Eagle Energy Corporation began hydraulic fracturing operations on an oil well in Divide County, North Dakota and contracted with FBS to provide water. American Eagle also contracted with IPT, a consulting company. Though IPT coordinated American Eagle’s independent contractors, American Eagle authorized any contractor to stop work at any time if a work condition was unsafe. IPT had no contractual relationship with FBS. FBS took direction from IPT, but FBS controlled its own day-to-day activities, including how it performed its work. On the morning of March 2, 2014, ice had formed in a hose between a pond near the well site and a tank. While the hose was still pressurized from the compressed air, at least one FBS crew member struck it with a sledgehammer in an attempt to dislodge the ice obstruction. The sledgehammer blows caused the hose to break apart and uncontrollably jump and whip around. The flailing hose struck and injured Devore. After review, the North Dakota Supreme Court concluded the facts, viewed in a light most favorable to Devore, did not support a conclusion that American Eagle, IPT, or Barony owed Devore a duty of care or proximately caused his injuries. Therefore the Court affirmed the summary judgments. View "Devore v. American Eagle Energy Corporation, et al." on Justia Law

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Workforce Safety and Insurance (WSI) appealed a district court judgment reversing an Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) confirmation of a prior order of WSI. In 2014, Ellis began receiving partial disability benefits. In 2016, Ellis underwent a functional capacity assessment and further review by WSI. WSI determined Ellis continued to be eligible to receive partial disability benefits, but at a reduced amount. WSI ordered his partial disability benefits be reduced by the greater of his actual wages or his retained earning capacity as had been determined by WSI. Ellis appealed the WSI order, triggering review by the ALJ. WSI contended the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Ellis’ appeal of the ALJ’s decision because his appeal to the district court was untimely. The North Dakota Supreme Court found the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Ellis failed to timely file his appeal of the ALJ's decision. The Court therefore ordered the district court judgment vacated, and reinstated the decision of the ALJ. View "Ellis v. WSI" on Justia Law

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Bile Salat appealed the discontinuation of his disability benefits. In 2016, Salat slipped and fell at work. On March 31, 2016, WSI accepted liability for a contusion of the lower back and pelvis and a right ankle sprain. By November 2016, an independent medical examination revealed Salat's ankle injury had not healed and was not at pre-injury status, but low back pain was unrelated to the work injury. Salat's personal physician reviewed the IME's opinion and did not have any "objective findings on physical exam to challenge or disagree with his medical opinion." On August 5, 2016, WSI issued an order discontinuing Salat’s disability benefits after June 29, 2016. On December 15, 2016, WSI issued a notice of decision denying further benefits of Salat’s lumbar spine after November 11, 2016. The North Dakota Supreme Court reversed the discontinuation of benefits, finding Salat's physician's statement was misunderstood by the district court as a "blanket agreement" with the independent medical examiner: Salat's physician's "statement is better understood as stating she had no objective findings on physical exam to challenge or disagree with [the IME] opinion regarding the source of Salat’s back pain." On this record, the Supreme Court surmised the ALJ could have reasonably found the two physicians had conflicting medical opinions on the source of continued back pain, and that a "reasoning mind reasonably could determine" Salat suffered low back pain after November 11, 2016 that was attributable to the compensable work injury. View "WSI v. Salat, et al." on Justia Law

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Huey Brock appealed judgments dismissing his negligence action against Richard Price and KS Industries, LLC (“LLC”) and awarding Price and LLC costs and disbursements in the amount of $181,467. Price and LLC cross-appealed the judgment awarding costs and disbursements. In 2011, Brock was severely injured in a traffic accident while traveling in a company-owned vehicle with Price and another LLC employee, resulting in Brock becoming quadriplegic. Days later WSI accepted his claim for benefits. In June 2012, Brock, WSI, and LLC entered into a stipulation that Brock would continue to receive WSI benefits while seeking workers’ compensation benefits in California from KS Industries, LP (“LP”). The stipulation further provided that WSI would cease paying benefits if his claim against LP’s insurance carrier were accepted and his attorney would act in trust for WSI in pursuing reimbursement of funds paid in connection with Brock’s claim. Brock then filed an application for California workers’ compensation benefits claiming he was employed by LP at the time of the accident. Based on a California administrative decision, LP’s workers’ compensation carrier commenced paying benefits to Brock and reimbursed WSI all funds expended on Brock. In 2014, WSI issued a notice of decision reversing its prior decision accepting Brock’s claim. In February 2015, Brock brought this negligence action against Price and LLC. Brock moved for summary judgment arguing collateral estoppel based on the California administrative proceedings precluded Price and LLC from arguing LLC was Brock’s employer rather than LP, and therefore his action was not barred by the exclusive remedy provisions of North Dakota law. In November 2018, Price and LLC filed a motion for summary judgment arguing collateral estoppel did not apply and the exclusive remedy provisions applied to bar Brock’s action against LLC and his co-worker, Price. The district court agreed and dismissed the action. The North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of the negligence action because it was indeed barred by the Workforce Safety and Insurance Act’s exclusive remedy provisions. The Court reversed the award of costs and disbursements and remanded for the court to hold a hearing on Brock’s objections required by N.D.R.Civ.P. 54(e)(2). View "Brock v. Price, et al." on Justia Law

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Plains Trucking’s petitions sought supervisory writs from the North Dakota Supreme Court in two civil actions that arose out of an explosion on March 27, 2013. One worker, Trevor Davis, was killed, and another worker, Darian Songer Bail, was injured in the explosion that occurred while Davis and Songer Bail were cleaning a crude oil tanker trailer owned by MBI Energy Services. Plains Trucking asserted both Davis and Songer Bail were its employees and that the civil actions were barred by N.D.C.C. title 65. Respondent Songer Bail cross-petitioned for a supervisory writ to direct the district court in his case to vacate its order determining as a matter of law that he was Plains Trucking’s employee on the date of his injury. The cases were consolidated for oral argument to the Supreme Court. Exercising its original jurisdiction, the North Dakota Supreme Court granted Plains Trucking’s petitions and denied Songer Bail’s cross-petition. View "Plains Trucking, LLC v. Hagar, et al." on Justia Law

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In 2014, Leonard Taylor, then 55 years old, sustained severe work-related injuries when he fell 15 feet while employed as an electrician by Industrial Contractors, Inc. Taylor suffered multiple compression fractures of the thoracic vertebrae, with a fragment impinging the spinal cord resulting in partial paraplegia. Taylor underwent surgery and was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury, incomplete paraplegia at T5-6, neurogenic bowel and bladder, a closed head injury, and neuropathic pain. While at the hospital, Taylor exhibited numerous signs of cognitive dysfunction. Taylor was eventually transferred to a hospital rehabilitation unit where he received physical, occupational, and cognitive therapy. WSI accepted liability for Taylor’s claim and paid him benefits. WSI appealed a judgment affirming an Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) order finding Taylor had a retained earnings capacity of zero and he had good cause for noncompliance with vocational rehabilitation for failing to perform a good faith work search. Because the ALJ misapplied the law in determining Taylor had zero retained earnings capacity, the North Dakota Supreme Court reversed the judgment and remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings. View "WSI v. Taylor, et al." on Justia Law

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Jack Robinson appeals from a district court judgment affirming a Workforce Safety and Insurance (“WSI”) order finding Robinson personally liable for any unpaid workers’ compensation premiums, penalties, interest, and costs owed by Dalton Logistics, Inc. (“Dalton”). Robinson argues WSI failed to properly serve him with the administrative order resulting in a lack of personal jurisdiction and that his due process rights were violated. The North Dakota Supreme Court found the ALJ failed to make any findings of fact to support its conclusion that Robinson’s motion to dismiss be denied as a matter of law. It therefore reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded to the agency for further proceedings. View "Robinson v. WSI" on Justia Law