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Workers’ Comp Claims by Illinois Prison Guards Under Investigation

Illinois taxpayers have shelled out over $10 million to settle workers’ compensation claims filed by employees at the Menard Correctional Center (MCC), mainly related to repetitive trauma injuries. However, a study concluded that the job duties guards are required to perform are unlikely to cause such injuries, raising questions about the validity of the workers’ comp claims.

From January 1, 2008 to December 2010, 389 MCC employees – more than half the workforce at the prison – filed successful workers’ compensation claims. The cost to taxpayers to settle those claims was around $10 million; of that amount, $5.9 million was for claims involving repetitive trauma. [See: PLN, Aug. 2011, p.47].

The most common repetitive injury claim was carpal tunnel syndrome – which guards alleged was caused by manually locking and unlocking doors at the prison. Even the warden at MCC claimed he had developed carpal tunnel, resulting in a $75,678 settlement in his workers’ comp case. Other MCC employees alleged foot injuries from standing or walking on the facility’s cement floors. In the face of so many costly claims, state officials had Midwest Rehabilitation, Inc. examine the working conditions at MCC and issue a report.

The seventeen-page report concluded that the guards’ required job duties did not approach even minimal levels on a stress index. A score of three is considered safe; the most difficult job for guards at MCC, operating a hand crank that opens 24 cells at a time, had a score of 1.5.

Illinois Central Management Services (CMS) approved settlements of $20,000 to $100,000 for the workers’ compen-sation claims filed by MCC employees. Without any further investigation, CMS turned the cases over to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) and the Attorney General’s office.

“The report did not recommend any changes in procedures at IDOC.... Since the report determined the injuries were not caused by IDOC workplace procedures, we did not make any changes,” said IDOC spokeswoman Sharyn Elman. “IDOC cannot prevent employees from filing workers’ compensation claims; this would be a violation of the law.”

The Midwest Rehabilitation report was used by the Attorney General’s office to oppose some of the claims brought by MCC guards. During a January 2009 hearing, the report’s author, occupational therapist Tracey Maras, testified that the guards’ duties did not cause the alleged injuries.

However, Illinois law does not require workers to prove that a work condition is a significant cause of an injury, only that it could have caused the injury. Arbitrator John Dibble rejected Maras’ testimony, and based his decision on the findings of the guards’ treating physician, Dr. David Brown. Dr. Brown routinely diagnosed MCC guards with work-related carpal tunnel syndrome.

“Based on arbitrator Dibble’s decision that the repetitive trauma cases of Menard correctional officers were ‘clear cut’ in favor of the officers, these cases were extremely difficult to defend,” noted Natalie Bauer, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office.

But Dibble is no stranger to work-related injuries. In 2010, he received a $48,790 settlement for his own claim that he said was caused by stumbling on steps at a workers’ compensation hearing office.

Multiple investigations by state agencies and by a federal grand jury into workers’ compensation claims filed by state employees were launched as a result of the pattern of claims involving staff members at MCC.

As part of the federal investigation, subpoenas were issued in February 2011 seeking records concerning MCC workers’ comp claims, as well as records related to a CMS employee, a former Assistant Attorney General and three workers’ compensation arbitrators, including Dibble.

Dibble and another arbitrator were placed on administrative leave while the third, Jennifer Teague, was suspended. Teague reportedly tried to hold a high-profile workers’ comp hearing “on the sly,” and offered to expedite a hearing in exchange for a faster payment in her own injury claim. All three of the arbitrators were later replaced.

Despite the on-going investigations, 59 more workers’ compensation claims were filed by MCC employees during the first half of 2011, including 28 related to repetitive injuries. “This is not common,” said Elman. “We haven’t seen anything like that in our other prisons, and we have prisons almost as old as Menard.”

In March 2011, CMS had Dr. Anthony Sudekum conduct additional tests. “It is my opinion that the job activities of a correctional officer at Menard Correctional Institute would not serve as a prime etiologic [causal] factor in the development of upper extremity repetitive trauma injuries,” he concluded. “However, I feel that these work activities could be a possible aggravating factor in the development and or progression of these conditions.”

Dr. Sudekum’s opinion fulfilled “all that’s needed under Illinois law,” said Thomas Rich, an attorney who represented many of the MCC guards. He disagreed with the doctor’s finding that the job duties were not a “primary” cause of the injuries. “Dr. Sudekum is a pleasant person. He just happens to have a different opinion. It mirrors that of many insurance companies, employers, and governmental agencies who want to defend a claim,” Rich stated.

The questionable MCC workers’ compensation claims came to light following an investigation by the Belleville News-Democrat. The newspaper obtained the Midwest Rehabilitation report through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. But when the paper asked CMS for anonymous medical test results for MCC guards, it ran into resistance. In April 2011, the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor’s Office issued a binding opinion that the records were public and should be released.

CMS, however, filed a lawsuit to prevent the release of 50 nerve conduction velocity tests performed on MCC workers who had filed claims. In response, the state legislature passed a bill in June 2011 to have the test results released.

“The Illinois House overwhelmingly approved and agreed with me that CMS must follow the law and release records requested under the Freedom of Information Act. We owe the taxpayers transparency, due to the fact that nearly $10 million in workers’ compensation claims were awarded at the Menard prison,” said state Rep. Dwight Kay, who sponsored the bill.

Also in June 2011, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation (Public Act 97-0018) that limits workers’ compensation payments for claims involving carpal tunnel syndrome, the most common injury alleged by MCC employees.

On January 20, 2012, a Cook County Circuit Court judge issued a ruling in the suit filed by CMS, holding that the MCC employees’ medical test results must be released pursuant to the News-Democrat’s FOIA request.

“We need to get to the bottom of everything and I’m very happy that this is happening,” Governor Pat Quinn said in regard to the workers’ comp investigations, which remain ongoing.

According to a December 2011 report by the Associated Press, MCC employees received $19 million in workers’ comp payments from 2007 through 2010, almost twice the amount that was initially reported. A similar pattern of workers’ compensation claims was found at state facilities near MCC, including other prisons and juvenile facilities. The Associated Press suggested that the pattern of claims at and around MCC may be due to “an employee culture that encouraged injury claims at the facilities in the vicinity.”

Sources: Belleville News-Democrat, Washington Examiner, Associated Press

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