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Nevada Supreme Court Holds Firefighting Prisoner Cannot Challenge Worker’s Compensation Based on Prison Pay

Following his release, a former Nevada Department of Corrections (DOC) prisoner who was injured while working as a firefighter for the Nevada Division of Forestry (NDF) challenged the calculation of his post-release worker’s compensation benefits based on his miniscule prison salary. On December 26, 2019, the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of the petition for judicial review challenging the calculation.

While Darrell E. White was participating in a voluntary DOC work program with the NDF fighting fires he fractured a finger stepping off of a “porta potty trailer and hitting his right hand on the bumper of the crew bus.” White filed a worker’s compensation claim, which was accepted by the NDF’s insurance carrier, Cannon Cochran Management Services, Inc. He was released from prison seven months after he was injured.

White notified Cannon Cochran that he had not received adequate medical treatment while incarcerated and wanted to be seen by a medical provider to rehabilitate his finger. The company scheduled an appointment. Following the appointment, White was immediately scheduled for surgery and deemed temporarily disabled for 144 days due to his finger injury.

Cannon Cochran informed White that it had calculated his monthly wages to be $22.93. White filed an administrative appeal alleging that the Minimum Wage Amendment to the Nevada Constitution required his post-release wages to be calculated at the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. He argued that NRS 616B.028, which established a modified worker’s compensation program for prisoners injured while incarcerated, only controlled the calculation of his worker’s compensation while he was incarcerated. The appeals officer denied his appeal.

White petitioned a district court for judicial review. The court affirmed the appeals officer’s decision, holding that NRS 616C.500(2), which provided for released prisoners to receive worker’s compensation for injuries received while in the DOC, worked with NRS 616C.425(1), which provided that average monthly wages be determined on the date of the accident, to undermine White’s argument that the minimum wage be applied to his claim. Represented by Las Vegas attorney Travis N. Barrick, White appealed to the Supreme Court of Nevada.

Addressing the issue de novo, the Supreme Court noted that a legislative history of NRS 616B.018 shows that the statute was passed because of “a desire to cut costs from the fire preservation programs within the [NDF] and reduce civil litigation arising from injuries sustained by inmates fighting fires.” Thus, the focus was limiting liability, not compensating prisoners for injuries.

The Supreme Court also noted that, under the modified worker’s compensation program for prisoners adopted by the DOC at NAC 616B.096-986, disability compensation begins only after the prisoner is released and the amount of compensation is based on the average monthly wage on the date of the injury. This was dispositive of the issue as, to rule otherwise, would require the court to hold that the wages White received while incarcerated were unconstitutional.

Since White had not raised the issue of whether Nevada prisoners were constitutionally entitled to minimum wage, the court held this “is an open question” and concluded that a worker’s compensation benefits challenge was not the proper vehicle to resolve it. The district court’s decision denying the petition was affirmed.

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Related legal case

White v. State