Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Court Tolls Statute of Limitations on Employee Benefits Claim
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
An employer who fails to post the statutorily required notice of workers’ compensation benefits may not raise the statute of limitations as a defense to an employee’s claim for disability benefits, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Reversing a trial court’s order dismissing Delores Pugh’s complaint against the County of Los Angeles in an unpublished decision, Div. One ruled that the statute of limitations was tolled until Pugh gained actual knowledge that she might be entitled to benefits and revived her claim.
Pugh took a medical leave of absence from her employment with the county beginning in July 1999 after she was diagnosed as suffering from work-related stress. She never returned to work, and the county eventually granted her disability retirement.
In 2003, Pugh filed a claim with the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board alleging that she suffered cumulative psychological and physical injuries while employed by the County from April 1972 until her leave of absence commenced.
However, the county, arguing that the date of injury was in 1999 at the latest, disputed her claim on the ground that she failed to file it within one year from the date of injury, as required by Labor Code Sec. 5405.
Pugh testified that she waited to file a claim because she was unaware of her rights and did not know that her problems were covered. She claimed that she did not know anyone who had ever been injured at work, and that none of her doctors had suggested she consider filing a workers’ compensation claim.
She also maintained she never saw any signs posted at the facility where she worked advising employees of their workers’ compensation rights in compliance with Sec. 3550, that no one in management ever informed her of her rights, and that she never received any literature on the subject.
Sec. 3550 requires every employer subject to the workers’ compensation law to post a notice advising employees of their rights under the law. The notice must be posted in a conspicuous location frequented by employees and must include the existence of time limits for the employer to be notified of an occupational injury, and an employer’s failure to comply is punishable as a misdemeanor, and subject to civil penalties.
Although the county did not admit it failed to post the statutorily required notice, it produced no evidence that it had posted the statutorily mandated notice at Pugh’s workplace or notified her of her rights individually, and a worker’s compensation judge—finding that the county had not posted the statutory notice—determined her claim was not barred by Sec. 1505’s statute of limitations.
On the county’s motion for reconsideration, the WCAB overruled the judge’s decision and concluded that Pugh knew her stress was work-related by 1999, and that such knowledge was sufficient to trigger the one-year period for filing a claim.
But Justice Frances Rothschild wrote on appeal that the purpose of the notice requirement was to protect and preserve the rights of an injured employee, and reasoned that employers who fail to comply with the statutory notice requirement cannot assert the statute of limitations as a defense in order for workers’ compensation laws to have meaningful effect.
Pugh’s case “demonstrates the need for posted notices to protect employees’ rights,” she wrote.
Acknowledging that tolling the one-year claim filing period for failing to post the notice of rights may in some cases frustrate the policy supporting the statute of limitations, Rothschild noted that the difficulty caused by the delay is divided between the employer who has to prove notice, and the employee who has to prove entitlement to benefits.
The justice rejected the county’s argument that the civil and criminal penalties contained in Sec. 3550 should be the only consequences for an employer’s failure to post the requisite notice, concluding that no authority precludes a court from providing an equitable remedy to a person who is injured as a consequence of a statutory violation, just because criminal or civil penalties for violation of the same statute exist.
Presiding Justice Robert M. Mallano and Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg, sitting on assignment, joined Rothschild in her opinion.
The case is Pugh v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, B201677.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company