Longshore Fraud Nets Prison Time

Mervin J. Noel, 51, of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, plead guilty to one count of making false statements to continue receiving workers’ compensation benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. Noel began receiving longshore benefits and Social Security disability benefits after sustaining an injury while working on an offshore oil platform in 1994. His employer had LHWCA coverage through the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Corp. (“LWCC”). He also applied for and received SSDI benefits.

In 2007, Noel began operating a lawn care business without disclosing his income to either LWCC or SSA. He completed four separate Forms LS-200, Report of Earnings, at the request of LWCC, falsely stating he had no income. He also falsely reported to SSA that he had not worked for wages since being declared disabled.

Noel received $20,776 in LHWCA benefits and $118,220 in SSDI benefits that he was not entitled to based on his earnings.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth E. Foote sentenced Noel to six months in prison and six months at-home confinement and ordered Noel to pay $138,247 in restitution to LWCC and the United States.

DOL-Joint Bar Association Announces Annual Meeting

The DOL-Joint Bar Association has announced its annual membership meeting, which will be held in conjunction with Loyola Law School’s Annual Longshore Conference. The meeting will be held on Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at 3:00 p.m. at the Pan-American Life Center, Orleans Room (11th Floor), 601 Poydras St., New Orleans LA 70130. Director of OWCP Longshore Tony Rios will be addressing the membership and we will have all of the Regional District Directors in attendance.  This meeting is open to all plaintiff and defense attorneys representing parties before the United States Department of Labor regardless of membership in the DOL-Joint Bar Association.  Please share this announcement with any colleagues who practice before the United States Department of Labor.

For anyone interested in membership in the DOL-Joint Bar Association, you can apply or renew online using your credit card at www.doljointbar.org. Applications will also be accepted at the Annual Membership Meeting on March 18th.

Loyola Law School’s Annual Longshore Conference Is An Important Industry Event

The Annual Longshore Conference sponsored by Loyola Law School in cooperation with the United States Department of Labor, will be held March 19th and 20th at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel in New Orleans.

This year’s conference will be unique and should not be missed by any LHWCA or DBA practitioner.  The Director of DLHWC, the National Office Branch Chiefs and all of the District Directors will be presenting at this year’s conference.  The program will address changes in the operation of OWCP and specifically the DLHWC, as well as future plans to improve operations in claims administration. There will be a representative of the Special Claims Unit to discuss claims under the War Hazards Compensation Act and how those claims are administered. There has never been such a wealth of knowledge from the Department of Labor presented at any program and everyone who handles claims under the Act will want to attend.

The program also includes an annual overview of recent judicial developments in claims under the Act, maritime jurisdiction that impacts what law covers a claim, and the standards for settlement approval under the Act in light of recent jurisprudence. Functional Capacity Evaluations are becoming a greater influence in claims handling and medical care, and there will be a panel of experts to discuss the issues involving these tests. Claims more frequently involve disputes concerning multiple employers and multiple carriers and the program will explore the legal issues involved in those claims, as well as the impact of employers and carriers that are defunct or bankrupt, and occasions where coverage lapses. There will also be sessions on both legal ethics and professionalism.

To register for the program, visit www.loyno.edu/cle, or call 504-861-5564 to speak with Natasha Lacoste, Director of Continuing Legal Education.

Investigation of Marine Casualties – Rights of Parties in Interest

Flickr Coast Guard InvestigationWhen a marine casualty occurs the U.S. Coast Guard is empowered to conduct an investigation to determine “as closely as possible” the cause of the casualty, cause of any death, whether an act of misconduct, incompetence, negligence, unskillfulness, or willful violation of law committed by any licensed or certified individual or member of the Coast Guard contributed to the cause of the casualty, whether there is evidence that an act subjecting the offender to a civil or criminal penalty has been committed and whether there is a need for new laws or regulations, or amendment or appeal of existing laws or regulations. 46 U.S.C. 6301.

But what about the rights of the parties to the casualty? What is the extent of their participation in the investigation?  46 U.S.C. 6303 provides that in such an investigation parties in interest (PII) shall be allowed to be represented by counsel, cross-examine and call witnesses.  PIIs include an owner, any holder of a license or certificate of registry, holder of a merchant mariner’s document, any person whose conduct is under investigation, and any other party in interest.  This has been expanded to include any person who the USCG finds to have a “direct interest” into the investigation.  However, in practice these guidelines do not provide much relief to the owner of a subject vessel when on-the-scene interviews and inspections by the Coast Guard are underway in the immediate wake of a significant marine casualty.  The degree that the PII could actively participate and be privy to interviews, statements and other discovered evidence was largely dependent upon the discretion of the investigating officers.

In 2010, in response to industry calls for more active participation, inclusion and transparency, the Coast Guard issued CG-545 Policy Letter 3-10. In it the Coast Guard made clear that PIIs have the right to participate in “all levels of investigation”, not just formal hearings.  This is important.  The PII has the right to immediate participation.  This includes the right to be present during interviews of all witnesses (not just those of its own crew or employees), to be present during on-scene inspections, to present evidence to the Coast Guard and request that particular witnesses be interviewed.

To be clear, however, the Policy Letter mandates that the Marine Board of Investigation or Investigating Officer (IO) are in charge of all aspects of the investigation. In order for an interested party to participate it must be recognized by the Board or IO as a PII.  The IO has the prerogative to formally designate PIIs during the course of the investigation.  But the party that believes it is a stakeholder in the casualty is best served by making formal application with the IO to be designated as a PII.  When application is made the IO must give it due consideration.  If the applicant meets the criteria found in Part 6303 and Part 2 of the Policy Letter it “shall” be given PII status.  The request for PII recognition may be made verbally, but needs to be followed in writing within 24 hours.  The IO’s initial designation may be verbal, but needs to be made in writing by the IO within 5 business days of receipt of the written request for PII designation.

The stakeholder needs to know that the IO is not required to designate PIIs. It is incumbent on the stakeholder to act early and promptly to contact the IO and make clear that it seeks PII status.  The IO is required to notify the PII when witnesses will be interviewed, but is not obligated to accommodate the schedule of the PII.  If the PII provides a witness the IO shall determine if the witness is relevant to the investigation.  If the IO finds that the witness is not relevant, the witness will not be interviewed.

During interviews the IO is in charge. When the IO has completed his portion of the interview, the PII then may ask questions.  The IO is empowered to determine if the questions the PII asks are relevant.  If he finds that a question is not relevant it will not be allowed and the witness informed not to respond.  Part 4e of the Letter provides that the rights of the PII apply only to conducting witness interviews.  The IO “may” allow the PII to review any or all evidence gathered during the fact-finding portion of the investigation.  The PII is not allowed to have its own copies (in any form) of any documentation (read: statements) with the exception of the names and work information of the witnesses.  Additionally the IO “may” allow the PII to review the findings of fact portion of the report of investigation, but the PII is prohibited from being involved in the development or review of analysis, conclusions or recommendations for a marine casualty investigation.  As is obvious, while the Policy Letter does provide for active PII participation, it does leave to the IO significant discretion what witness or evidence he will deem worthy of consideration.  Irrespective of this, the PII should take every opportunity to submit witnesses and evidence it believes is favorable to its interests.

While the language in Part 4c restricts access by the PII to third-party documents such as log books, photos, witness statements and other evidence and what witnesses will be deemed relevant, in practice I have found that the on-site Coast Guard investigators more times than not want to work with industry and will share documents, provide access to evidence that is developed, and will accommodate the work schedules of witnesses and company representatives or PIIs.

Excellent Flickr Photo courtesy of Jonathan James.