Ohio’s New Attorney General Faces Workers’ Comp Court Decision

January 3, 2007

Ohio’s new attorney general made criticism of the scandal-ridden state insurance fund for injured workers a hallmark of his campaign.

Taking office next month, Democrat Marc Dann must now decide whether to appeal a court ruling declaring that the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation potentially underpaid hundreds of employees hurt on jobs they got through welfare.

In a lawsuit, the workers claimed they didn’t receive proper compensation in violation of a 1996 state Supreme Court ruling.

In the case of Bruce Smith of Youngstown, for example, he received $31 a week in benefits after injuring his right knee stripping floors at a youth center.

Smith had gone on welfare after he was laid off from his job making bumpers for a General Motors parts supplier. He was injured in April 2003 on a job he received in Mahoning County as a condition of getting $139 in food stamps weekly.

He won an initial appeal of his case and his disability pay was boosted to $224. He lost at the Industrial Commission, which ruled that the 1996 court ruling didn’t apply to Smith.

The 1996 court ruling held that the state could not deny full death benefits to the widow of a man who died as a result of a disease he contracted on a similar public relief job.

The decision found that state law violated the equal protection clauses of the Ohio and U.S. constitutions.

The lawsuit, filed in the 10th Ohio District Court of Appeals in Columbus two years ago, argued that the ruling applies to all welfare workers. The court agreed in a Dec. 19 decision.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s 1996 decision “is not limited solely to dependents of work-relief employees, but also includes work-relief employees themselves,” appeals Judge Susan Brown wrote for the unanimous three-judge decision.

The Equal Justice Foundation, a civil rights group that brought the lawsuit, doesn’t have an exact figure it thinks the workers are owed but says the amount of money could be considerable. It believes the ruling could affect claims going back to the 1980s.

The workers in question “worked very hard just like any other employee to earn a living and earn a decent wage and they’re finally getting the money they’re owed,” said foundation lawyer Judith Goldstein.

The welfare program is a tiny part of overall claims. At the time the lawsuit was brought two years ago, the workers’ compensation bureau had paid about $6 million for 3,200 successful welfare worker claims to date, compared to about $2 billion in regular claims.

A Dann spokesman said the 10th District ruling was one of a number of cases that Dann already was reviewing before taking office. The decision must be appealed by early February.

“We haven’t made any determination as to how we’ll proceed,” Dann spokesman Leo Jennings said. “We’ll have a decision within the time whether to appeal.”

Dann was an early and frequent critic of the workers’ comp bureau after a scandal broke in early 2005 involving the agency’s unorthodox $50 million investment in rare coins.

The investigations into that investment led to the departure of the bureau’s longtime director and numerous criminal charges against bureau employees and members of Gov. Bob Taft’s administration.

After the state’s probe began, Taft disclosed that he failed to report golf outings and other gifts. He then pleaded no contest to ethics charges in August 2005.

Smith, 61, went back to the auto parts factory after his injury healed, then was laid off again. He’s worked other jobs over the past couple of years but is currently not working because of his injury.

“Things have been hard,” he said in a phone interview Friday. “I’m very, very happy with the ruling.

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