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.

Trial Court Disbelieved Plaintiff, Determined He Was Not a Seaman

Last week, Louisiana’s Third Circuit published a Jones Act decision wherein it affirmed the lower court’s decision that Plaintiff failed to carry his burden of proof that he was a Jones Act seaman.  Plaintiff began working for his employer in a land-based warehouse, but he expressed interest in offshore work.  Soon thereafter, Plaintiff began working as a helper on a platform fixed to the outer continental shelf; but he ate, slept, and used the restroom facilities on a vessel called the RAM VII.  Plaintiff was injured when a Teflon pipe weighing two-and-a-half pounds struck him in the face.  Plaintiff then filed a petition for damages wherein he alleged entitlement to compensation based on his status as a seaman under the Jones Act.  The trial court disagreed.

On appeal, Louisiana’s Third Circuit discussed Chandris, and the Supreme Court’s test for seaman status.  Essentially, Plaintiff complained that the “trial court incorrectly based its finding that he failed to carry his burden to prove that he was a Jones Act seaman solely based upon how much time he physically spent on a vessel.”  The appellate court disagreed:

Our review of the record does not indicate that the trial court found [Plaintiff] was not a seaman based solely because he was not working on the RAM VII 50% of the time.  Rather, it is clear that the trial court determined that [Plaintiff] was not credible and, as such, it did not give credence to his assertion that he spent 50% of his time working on the RAM VII.  The trial court then cited testimony contrary to [Plaintiff’s] assertion that he spent 50% of his time physically on the RAM VII.

In essence, the trial court did not believe Plaintiff’s allegations that he spent 50% of his time on a vessel.  Because the Supreme Court’s Chandris test requires consideration of the amount of time a seaman is on a vessel, Plaintiff’s lack of credibility was fatal to his claim.

But that’s not all.  The appellate court also discussed the evidence that refuted Plaintiff’s claims that he was a seaman.  The court cited testimony of a former employee, a present employee, and the employer’s safety manager.  The testimony refuted Plaintiff’s allegations that he worked 50% of the time on the RAM VII.  Indeed, “[t]he summation of the witness testimony can reasonably be interpreted that [Plaintiff’s] connection to the RAM VII was tenuous and, therefore, not substantial in duration or nature as required by the second prong of the Chandris test.”  Accordingly, Plaintiff was not a seaman and the trial court did not err.

Troglen v. Hydraulic Well Control, 2014-308 (La. App. 3 Cir. 10/8/14); — So. 3d —-.

Removal of a General Maritime Claim

A recent amendment to the widely-utilized removal statute, 28 U.S.C § 1441, now allows for removal of a general maritime law claim to federal court absent diversity of citizenship between the parties. And, the amendment doesn’t stop there- even with the inclusion of a Jones Act claim [statutorily non-removable thanks to 46 U.S.C. § 30104 and 28 U.S.C. § 1445(a)], a general maritime claim can now proceed to be heard in a federal court.

Prior to January 1, 2012, the removal statute only allowed for removal of a general maritime claim if diversity of citizenship was present between the parties. As it was written, the statute permitted removal of claims over which the district court had original jurisdiction,1 except as otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress.” Such an Act was found in Section (b) of the statute, which limited removal to claims “founded on a claim or right under the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b) (West 2006). Though district courts historically have had original jurisdiction over general maritime law claims, such claims were not founded on a claim or right under the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States. They were, therefore, ineligible for removal pursuant to the statute, unless there was an independent basis for removal, such as diversity of citizenship.

Cue the amendment to 28 U.S.C § 1441. Congress removed the limitation provision which permitted removal only for claims “founded on a claim or right under the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States. The only remaining limitation placed on removal was the criterion in Section (a) requiring the removed claim to be one which the district court had original jurisdiction, which according to 28 U.S.C. § 1333, includes any civil action of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction. So whether it was intentional or not, the amendment eliminated the statutory barrier to removal of general maritime law claims that didn’t have parties with diverse citizenship.

Courts within the purview of the 5th Circuit have already embraced the possibilities associated with the amendment. For instance, in the leading case of Ryan v. Hercules Offshore, Inc., 2013 WL 1967315 (S.D. Tex. May 13, 2013), Judge Miller allowed for, and agreed with, removal of the plaintiff’s general maritime law negligence claims based specifically on the amendment’s unambiguous language. His ruling has been followed by a growing line of cases, including Wells v. Abe’s Boat Rentals, Inc., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85534 (S.D. Tex. June 18, 2013), which permitted removal of a general maritime law claim despite the inclusion of a non-removable Jones Act claim. The District Court for the Southern District of Texas was careful to instruct, however, that after removal, the district court “shall sever [the non-removable claims] and shall remand the severed claims to the State court from which the action was removed.” See also Bridges v. Phillips 66 Co., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164146 (M.D. La. Nov. 18, 2013).

Despite the recent cases and decisions stemming from Texas and Louisiana courts, the amendment still stands vulnerable to interpretation. For now, however, one can safely and confidently pursue removal of general maritime claims, even in the presence of non-removable Jones Act claims.


1 Under 28 U.S.C. § 1333, district courts “have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of . . . any civil action of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are entitled.”

Summary Judgment Was Not Appropriate in Jones Act Case Against Louisiana

Plaintiff worked on a ferry boat operated by the State of Louisiana, Department of Transportation and Development.  On August 1, 2007, she slipped and sustained injuries while cleaning an oil leak the vessel’s engine room.  After Plaintiff filed a Jones Act suit against the State, the State moved for summary judgment on the issue of causation, arguing that Plaintiff’s own negligence was the sole of her injury.  In response, Plaintiff filed her own motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability, arguing that the State’s vessel was unseaworthy and that the State was negligent in failing to repair the vessel.  The trial court agreed with Plaintiff and the State appealed.

Louisiana’s Third Circuit first addressed causation.  The State argued that Plaintiff could not prove causation because, “while cleaning the oil with soap and water, she herself created the condition which caused her injury.”  The Third Circuit recognized that a seaman need only present “slight evidence” that her injuries were caused by her employer’s negligence in order to reach the jury (and avoid summary judgment).  Here, Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to avoid summary judgment:

In a transcript attached to her opposition to the State’s summary judgment motion, Ms. Thibodeaux testified that she had not yet mopped the portion of the floor on which she slipped.  She further testified that she was cleaning according to operational instructions.  In contrast, the State alleges she created the condition of soapy water mixed with oil through her own act of mopping.  Therefore, there exists a genuine issue of material fact as to causation.

As for liability, the Third Circuit determined that summary judgment should not have been granted in Plaintiff’s favor.   Plaintiff submitted that the vessel’s engine leaked oil, that its propeller shaft leaked water, and that the vessel had “poor flooring conditions.”   But the “presence of oil does not satisfy the legal standard for demonstrating Jones Act negligence as set forth above.”  Here, the jury must determine whether the dangerous condition was caused by the State’s negligence, or whether, as the State argued, Plaintiff caused the dangerous condition herself.

Thibodeaux v. State, DOTD, 13-893 (La. App. 3 Cir. 3/12/14); — So. 3d —-.