Workers compensation rights have been reduced in North Carolina. After the November 2016 election, the NC Republican controlled legislature met to pass laws to reduce workers compensation rights. The purpose of calling this emergency session was to take advantage of the last two months of lame duck Republican governor Pat McCrory’s term in office. The legislature was able to get these laws to take effect prior to risking a veto by the newly elected Democrat governor.
Workers Compensation Rights Law Rushed Through
On November 8, 2016, North Carolinians voted and elected Roy Cooper, a Democrat, as their new governor. Voters also elected Mike Morgan, a Democrat, to the N.C. Supreme Court. These elections resulted in both the executive and the judicial branch of government switching to Democratic control. The legislative branch remained under Republican control.
Although the N.C. legislature was not scheduled to reconvene until 2017, the Republican controlled legislative body announced an emergency session for the week of December 12 2016. During this week the legislature met for the stated purpose of passing a bill for hurricane relief. The Republican-controlled legislature did not disclose any other scheduled business. The legislature quickly passed the hurricane relief bill on Monday, December 12, 2016. However, after the bill passed, the legislature did not adjourn. Instead, the legislature spent the remainder of the week introducing and passing bills which significantly altered the powers of the executive branch. In an effort to disorient its opposition and limit feedback from the public, the legislature simultaneously introduced over 21 bills. The legislature then called only two bills out for vote. The voting on these two bills was conducted within forty eight hours thus giving little time for debate. Although multiple changes were made to existing law, this article will focus on impacts to the N.C. Industrial Commission, which hears all workers’ compensation cases in the state.
N.C. Industrial Commission Changes
The N.C. Industrial Commission hears all cases involving workers compensation claims. Business and insurance interests, therefore, stand to make huge financial gains should the Commission’s judges disallow injured and disabled workers medical care and income replacement. The judges hear cases involving complicated areas of law (including rules of evidence, rules of civil procedure, and interpretation of statutes and existing case law). In addition the commission hears cases involving complicated medical issues (including causes of medical diseases, injuries and deaths).
The legislature first granted outgoing Governor McCrory the ability to fill a vacancy for the Commission, as well as expanded the term of this judge to a period of ten years. This change was made despite the fact that this task would normally fall to the new governor. McCrory quickly filled the position with Mrs. Yolanda Stith. Mrs. Stith is the wife of McCrory’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith. A judge in this position needs to be versed in complicated legal and medical issues. Mrs. Stith, however, has no legal or medical experience. Mrs. Stith also has no experience in dealing with worker’s compensation issues. In an interview with WRAL regarding her appointment, Mrs. Stith cited her qualifications to judge workers compensation cases. She stated that she had volunteered with her sorority and that “I am currently the president of my chapter, which has over 240 women”. Taxpayers will compensate Mrs. Stith at a salary of $127,000 per year, or over $1.2 million over her ten year term.
The legislature also stripped Governor Cooper of the ability to name the chairman of the Industrial Commission during his term. Instead, that power was given to out-going Governor McCrory. The Chairman serves as the chief executive officer of the Commission. McCrory quickly reappointed Charlton Allen to the Chairman position. Mr. Allen has served in the position since 2014, when Governor McCrory appointed him to replace Andrew Heath. Mr. Allen’s prior decisions on worker’s compensation cases are known to favor insurance and business interests.
Finally, the legislature altered the incoming governor’s ability to remove judges serving on the Commission. When McCrory and the Republican legislature took over in 2012, they altered the rules regarding the immunity of deputy commissioners, who are the trial judges for workers compensation claims. Originally, these judges were protected from being fired due to their political affiliations. After the change, many judges were fired and replaced by McCrory’s candidates. Now that Cooper will be governor, the legislature reversed the law, making it illegal to fire these same judges for political reasons.