SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) – An ABC 4 investigation uncovers questionable practices when it comes to the Utah Labor Commission and its Administrative Law Judges. Some even say the ALJ has robbed them of their families and livelihood. Dennis Owen is one of them.
“I'm in the middle of moving because I can't afford this home,” said Dennis.
Out of work as an airplane mechanic and out of money Dennis is at the end of his rope. “I can’t buy a house. I can’t buy a car. I can’t buy anything because of what they have done to us.”
The “they” Dennis refers to is Labor Commission employees. And Dennis believes “they” not his injuries, destroyed his life.
A series of workplace accidents beginning in 2003 have left Dennis unable to do something as simple as buttoning his shirt. He has two fused wrists and injured shoulders. He’s had dozens of surgeries, years of litigation and tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. Now, Dennis and his family are on the verge of collapse and apparently Dennis isn’t alone.
“I have people who call me, who email me. They're at the point of suicide. They're losing their homes. They've lost their families,” said Dennis.
Dennis’s first worker’s compensation claim back in 2003 took four years to work through bureaucracy. That was too long for Dennis to go without income, so he tried again to work. But, another injury landed him in front of a Labor Commission Judge again. Six years later, that claim is rejected sighting he had pre-existing injuries that contributed to the accident and it was not an extraordinary circumstance.
“Every injury I had was a catastrophic event,” claims Dennis.
Now desperate and looking at bankruptcy, Dennis tries again to work and suffers the final blow.
“So, I had to have my shoulder repaired. I had to have my wrist repaired. In 2010 I had to have six surgeries alone,” said Dennis.
After dozens of surgeries, Dennis is covered in scars and is now legally disabled. But, he still can’t win a worker’s comp claim. Labor Commissioner Sherrie Hayashi told ABC 4 that she does sympathize with Dennis and other struggling through the system, but also that the rulings are fair and they system is one of the best in the country.
“The system, I believe, does work but I do understand how it can be difficult for people to go through it. But, it does not happen on all of the cases. These are the most difficult,” said Commissioner Hayashi.
Commissioner Hayashi also confirmed to ABC 4 News that Administrative Law Judge Deidre Marlowe failed to give crucial documents to a panel of medical experts. That mistake lead to a denial by the panel and an appeal which meant more delays.
Dennis also claims that Judge Marlowe misplaced critical documents that he’s already submitted.
“ So, I would acknowledge that is has been a while that this case has been before us,” said Commissioner Hayashi. Hayashi says there is always room for improvement and a better stream-lined process is at the top of the list. But, the problems don’t end there. ABC 4 leanred that the head of the commission’s Administrative Law Judges, Judge Richard La Jeunesse, was shredding files.
“We identified five specific cases where the original panel report was either discarded or destroyed. In all except for one we were able to obtain the original report,” said Commissioner Hayashi.
Questions of wrongdoing in Dennis’s cases and other have led State Representative Wayne Harper to call for a legislative audit.
“Claims have been made that there's a couple judges out there, or ALJ's, who have a bias against certain claimants so they're just holding it up. That's another question that we are asking,” said Rep. Harper.
In response to the audit, Commissioner Hayashi says she welcomes it and any suggestions to improve. But, she says there is no bias in these difficult cases.
“People do make mistakes. If it's something that can just be corrected then we give that judge or any person an opportunity to make those corrections,” Commissioner Hayashi said.
The audit is underway and expected to be finished early 2013. In the meantime Dennis has lost a home, his credit is destroyed, he’ll never work again and he has little more than a pile of papers to show for his years of battling the bureaucracy.
“They're stripping them of everything sweet and dear they hold in their life. For what? What did we do? We just got hurt!” said Dennis.
Dennis says he did get awarded $2,500 from his first claim. But, he says for him and his medical bills, mortgage payments, etc. that was just a drop in the bucket.
Dennis’s third claim was just Friday, November 9th. He plans to appeal.
As for Judge Richard La Jeunesse who was caught shredding papers, he no longer heads the ALJ but does still work as a hearing officer in the wage claim unit.