I have represented workers in Maine for over 25 years, and it hasn’t been until now that I have seen such an attack to the fundamental fairness of Maine’s workers’ compensation system. The secret interference by the LePage administration to tip the scales of justice at the request of a major employer undermines every concept of fairness and impartiality.
After years of relative quiet under the administrations of Governor King and Governor Baldacci, workers’ compensation again became a contentious political issue in 2011-12 when Republicans rammed through drastic benefit cuts for Maine workers. Governor LePage used his Republican majority in the House and Senate to dismantle the compromise developed by Maine’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Workers’ Compensation in 1992. Despite more than two decades of substantial premium reductions for Maine employers, LePage dismantled the safety net of workers’ compensation for long-term disabilities. There was no policy justification for this attack on benefits for injured workers. They did it simply because they could.
Now we find out that, without waiting for legislative action, the LePage administration secretly and unilaterally undermined fairness and due process in the adjudication of employees’ individual claims at the New Page mill in Rumford.
When confronted by Senator John Patrick of Rumford, Paul Sighinolfi, LePage’s Workers’ Compensation Director, admitted that over two years ago, without consulting or even informing the Workers’ Compensation Board, injured workers, or their representatives, he secretly reassigned all New Page cases after receiving complaints about one hearing officer (a judge in the workers’ compensation system) from New Page’s mill manager.
His move to allow one side in a disputed claim to secretly select out the hearing officer who will serve as both judge and jury in deciding that party’s case undermines basic fairness and due process in our legal system. A workers’ compensation hearing officer acts as both judge and jury and the factual determinations made by a hearing officer are final.
This is far worse than Governor LePage’s scandalous efforts to bias unemployment fact-finders at the mandatory luncheon last March. That was an “effort to bias” but this was “implemented bias.” Not only did this happen, but honest Maine workers who could have expected a fair hearing now learn that a judge in their case may have been selected (or selected out) at the request of their employer. How can we expect people to have confidence in the system after learning that one side is rigging the results?
I have never seen such a clear example of power and money trumping justice and fairness in all my years working in Maine. Maine workers’ expectations of a fair and impartial hearing have been denied. We need to demand that the cases involved be investigated, disclosed, and adverse results corrected immediately. To ignore this situation in Rumford would be to give up on the idea that all Americans have equal access to justice – not just the rich and powerful.
Jim Case has been an attorney with McTeague Higbee, representing workers for over 25 years. He can be reached at 207-725-5581.