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With Judge’s Help, Sheriff’s Insurance Carrier Corners Employees Over Workers’ Comp Claims as Fate of Building Looms

| December 13, 2018

The deserted Sheriff's Operations Center Wednesday, a day ahead of its latest round of testing. (© FlaglerLive)

The deserted Sheriff’s Operations Center Wednesday, a day ahead of its latest round of testing. (© FlaglerLive)

The Sheriff’s Operations Center, a possibly sick building, has dominated and embittered relations between the Sheriff’s Office and the county government administration over the past 13 months. The confrontation between Sheriff Rick Staly and County Administrator Craig Coffey bubbled over earlier this month when Staly all but called for Coffey’s dismissal.

But that’s only one of two major disputes centering over the building.

The other is the ongoing struggle between the Sheriff’s Office’s insurance carrier and some 30 sheriff’s employees who have filed workers’ compensation claims, seeking payment of medical and other bills for the ill effects they say they’ve suffered while working in the building. 

That’s the struggle that led to an Aug. 30 order by the administrative law judge in the case requiring the building to be left untouched until it could be inspected by the employees’ representative. And that’s the struggle that led to the agreement with the insurance carrier that the building’s air would be further tested today by an industrial hygienist, a step long sought by the employees affected: they do not trust the county’s own testing, which cleared the building as safe in early summer.

But getting the building tested by an independent scientist is a small victory amid several defeats for the employees who, judging from the way their cases have been treated so far by the judge in charge of their cases, seem headed for defeat in their claims for workers’ compensation.

Technically, the workers’ comp battle pits employees against Sheriff Rick Staly–their employer and his insurance carrier. In reality, even the employees’ attorney, Geoffrey Bichler (one of two attorneys representing the employees; Jeffrey Appel is the other) says the sheriff is not actually opposed to the workers’ claims, but Staly says he doesn’t get to decide what the insurance carrier does. It’s created an odd dynamic, with the sheriff himself speaking negatively against his own insurance carrier and its legal tactics, as Bichler does. But with no effect, either on the carrier or on the judge handling the claims.

Staly says his carrier’s position does not reflect his own. “In fact I have been fighting with my carrier, but they’re an insurance company, so their goal, like all insurance companies, they don’t want to pay a claim,” he said, “and unfortunately there’s Florida law that allows to fight them the way they are, and unfortunately they haven’t kept me informed. That’s part of the problem with our carrier.” He added: “While the litigation is against the Sheriff’s Office, basically there’s not much we can do because it’s in their hands,” meaning the carrier’s hands.  “I want to do what’s right with my employees. If I could change workers’ comp carrier today, I would.” With all the pending claims, he said he can’t: no other insurer would cover the Sheriff’s Office. “I’m stuck,” he said. 

That doesn’t help the employees so much as it squeezes them further in the middle of the battles: they may have paid a serious price with their health, and may end up having to pay an equally heavy price financially since they don’t have the deep pockets the insurance carrier–paid by taxpayers by way of the Sheriff’s Office–does. 

“They’re just throwing up roadblocks–I mean the sheriff’s insurance carrier and their defense counsel,” Bichler says. “They’re filing motion after motion, they’re doing everything possible not only to defeat the claims but to stand in the way of allowing this to move in  an orderly resolution.”

Just last week (on Dec. 4) Wilbur Anderson, the administrative law judge from the Office of Compensation Claims, ruled against all 30-some employees’ motion for a $2,000 advance to help pay their medical bills, pending a more permanent resolution of the case.

The ruling was not a surprise. In October, Anderson ruled against the employees’ request for an advance of nearly $6,000 to each of them. The money was to pay for today’s testing of the sheriff’s Operations Center by an independent industrial hygienist, for an independent medical evaluation of each employee, and for legal costs of $2,000 per employee. The insurer opposed the motion, even though under law the standard for such an advance did not set a high bar: the payment had to be in the best interest of the employee, it had to “not materially prejudice” the employer and its carrier (Staly would not have objected), and it had to be “reasonable under the circumstances of the case.”  The employees’ request seemed to meet all three conditions. 

Anderson, calling the case “totally controverted” (but without explaining why or defining the term) ruled that absent evidence that employees are “entitled” to any compensation, they are not entitled to the advance. Since the cases haven’t run their course, there’s no way to know yet whether the employees are entitled to compensation, and today’s testing is intended to gather what could potentially be part of the evidence making the employees’ case. But Anderson in essence posited a future conclusion based on just such an absence of evidence to justify his denial. 

Nor was he convinced that such an award wouldn’t prejudice the sheriff or his insurance carrier in the case. He said he “rejected” the claim that the request was reasonable,  saying that by having denied the claim on the first two grounds, the third had to be denied as well. It was oddly circuitous reasoning, but not unusual for judges reaching what appeared to be predetermined conclusions. 

Click On:

Anderson appeared to leave the door open for an advance of $2,000 or less, money to go strictly for testing of the building. So the employees’ attorney filed just such a motion. “Without an advance of compensation, the Employee is unable to secure scientific evidence as to the cause of the Employee’s medical conditions and the source of the Employee’s exposure,” that motion stated. 

Anderson rejected it on Dec. 4. 

His reasoning goes a long way to suggest how Anderson will rule in the end come March, when a final hearing is scheduled in the employees’ cases: “Step one requires me to determine whether Claimant has not returned to the same or equivalent employment with no substantial reduction in wages, or has suffered a substantial loss of earning capacity or a physical impairment, actual or apparent,” Anderson wrote. “No evidence has been presented that this requirement has been met. There is no evidence as to whether Claimant has returned to the same or equivalent employment with no substantial reduction in wages. Nor is there any evidence at this point that Claimant has suffered a substantial loss of earning capacity or a physical impairment, actual or apparent.” 

Going further, Anderson cast doubt on the employees’ own affidavits that they were requesting the advance because they “do not have the financial means” to pay the money themselves “without jeopardizing [their] financial security.” Anderson seemed to ridicule the claim: “Based on the evidence before me, Claimant could be destitute, extremely wealthy, or anywhere in between. I am therefore unable to determine whether this particular Claimant has a real financial need for the advance,” the judge wrote, denying the claim.  To a large extent, the judge is merely interpreting Florida’s worker’s comp la, notoriously unfriendly to employees as opposed to employers and insurers.

That left the employees with no option but to launch a GoFundMe account this week, with a fund-raising goal of $150,000. It launched on  Dec. 10. By today, it had raised $100. 

“They’re daring us to prove it but they don’t want us to have the opportunity to get the evidence in place to substantiate these claims,” Bichler  said. “So they’re spending a great deal of money defending and avoiding responsibility. I’ll just tell you candidly, the sheriff I think wants this to be done the right away, he wants to take care of his officers, so I’m not sure how the insurance carrier wants to operate with respect to the sheriff.”

The employees’ claims read similarly: “Exposure to unknown toxins/mycotoxin in Sheriff’s Operation Center resulting in respiratory impairment; blurred vision; rashes and hives on hands, lower back, and torso; bacterial infection in nose and blood; immune deficiency, mental nervous injury and cognitive impairment. Part(s) of body injured: multiple- hands, torso, lower back, respiratory, eyes, nose, immune system, blood, brain. Character of disability: Exposure to unknown toxins.” 

The administrative law judge issued a “preservation order” on Aug. 30, requiring the Operations Center to be left untouched. The order applies to the Sheriff and his insurance carrier, even though the county is the landlord. Following that, the administrative law judge ruled, “it would be appropriate to have the county move forward with any additional invasive inspection.” That may be ahead, in compliance with a recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control to cut sections of drywall and examine conditions the federal agency suspects may indicate the presence of mold and other toxins. The county has so far resisted that step, pointing to the administrative order not to do anything invasive in the building. But that will be next. Bichler and the sheriff, who has pushed for just such an analysis, intend to have his own observers in place for that step. 

Bichler said that even if the current cases don;t succeed before the administrative law judge, he may yet press for an appeal on constitutional grounds. The fact that he is considering that step suggests how precarious the employees’ position has become.

The employees at the heart of the case meanwhile appear to be behind a campaign to fire Craig Coffey, launching a Facebook page to that effect sometime in the past few weeks. A sample entry: “‘Faking’ This is the word used by County Administrator Craig Coffey to describe the employees of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office who have been fighting allergic reactions, painful rashes, vision problems, loss of memory, crippling headaches, and in some cases, life changing incurable diseases. Has he apologized? Has he shown any sign of compassion? Has he shown the slightest interest in searching for alternatives? NO. All he has done is spin every recommendation, every truthful story, heartbreaking account, or horrible reality of this situation in to feeble attempts to cover up the [atrocity] of a problem building that he helped create. It is disgusting and appalling to think that someone in such a high position within the County could think so little of the citizens and first responders.”

21 Responses for “With Judge’s Help, Sheriff’s Insurance Carrier Corners Employees Over Workers’ Comp Claims as Fate of Building Looms”

  1. Chris Goodfellow says:

    How long will it take for voters to realize the only way to end the health care insurance scam in America is to bring in a universal single payer system? The amount of time and resources expended in preparing and filing claims and then battling them with a profit oriented insurance companies whose primary goal is NOT to pay makes no sense. Health care should never be about profit. Period. We deserve better and can have it. All it takes is to resolve this issue is the ballot box and the courage and fortitude to at the very least try it. If after ten years people think differently there is nothing saying the decision could not be reversed. However, in all the western democracies where universal health coverage has been adopted it has not been rolled back.

    Universal health care for all citizens is not a socialist or communist plot. It is a recognition by advanced societies that ALL their citizens have value whatever their circumstances. When faced with wars or national emergencies do we not quickly close ranks and work shoulder to shoulder to protect and defend each other? When one of us falls ill or is injured a universal health care system should be viewed in the same light. We close ranks, share the costs and burdens and uplift our fellow citizens through their time of trial. Only the most greedy and yes, UnChristian can view it otherwise.

    Move with the times. Stop being a victim of greedy interests who could care less about you.

  2. Dave says:

    What a farce! Those employees shouldn’t receive a thing , no one in the county is buying their story of a sick building. Back to work or find workers who will.

  3. David and Goliath says:

    I feel sorry for the employees on this one. This is a David and Goliath situation but with two Goliaths…and David probably won’t win.

    First, they have to fight with the big insurance carrier, who will spend multiple times more to fight than just to pay to help the employees. Secondly, they are fighting the County who will not admit anything is wrong. The County has even hired an outside attorney to help them fight the employees (at $200 per hour). Even though they say nothing is wrong…

    The County could have brought in medical specialists from the field to help the employees. They did not, but why would they? Probably because if their specialists found something wrong with the employees, it could be used against them. Just keep denying anything is wrong…

    Both the carrier and the County are playing financial hardball. The employees are stuck paying their own money for everything, including their medical bills and testing to try to find medical solutions. Hopefully the attorney and testing groups are doing pro bono for the employees, otherwise it will prove costly for the employees that seem to just be looking for help with their health.

    When you have deep pockets like these two groups, the key tactic is to outspend the people until you break them financially. The employees will have to spend their money, without insurance, to try to get better. I applaud the attorney trying to get a few bucks for the employees to help with current testing. Too bad the judge didn’t help.

    So when the employees get broken financially and give up, then everything just goes away for the two Goliaths. The sick employees will probably leave for the sake of their own health because they will be forced to go back to the building. The County loses the value of experienced employees. The County will just rehire new employees for entry level salary. Coffey keeps making his $150k per year and rehiring friends after their retirement.

    Everyone wins, except for the dedicated employees that appear to have become ill just by coming to work…

    In the real world, David does not always beat Goliath.

  4. Concerned Citizen says:

    @ Dave

    You’ve been vehemently opposed against these Men and Women who had no choice but to work in a building that was unhealthy. The only other alternative was to find employment elsewhere which is easier said than done.

    If you had worked in a building that made you sick would you not want some sort of recourse? Most are only asking for medical expenses to be paid and rightfully so.

    If anyone should be opposed to anything it should be against our County Administrator and Sheriff. Both knew this building had issues and both should be held accountable.

    Who in their right mind would buy a 50 year old prior hospital that had sat empty. Then renovate it like nothing ever happened then not expect problems?

  5. John Brady says:

    There are medically documented illnesses. How ignorant to think 30 people are faking it. There is a problem with the building. No one has said that there maybe a toxin exist for which a test has not been designed to detect. The reality is there is a sick building and we keep throwing good money after bad. Cut losses and move on. Also the County should join the law suit against the insurance company. Premiums were paid to the insurance company to provide workers comp.Insurance company did not comply with policy.

    A second thought, if all of the legal fees were added together, these fees would have covered the cost of a new building

  6. Mark says:

    People, people, people. It’s the system our better’s have built for us to endure (we elected them!). Now enjoy it! Sounds to me that Judge Anderson is just trying to be thorough, unlike our opinions.

  7. Ben. says:

    The county employees here…..see money. Psychosomatic illnesses. ” You feel bad so I feel bad” Volusia county economic development is killing Flagler. But we have nice gas stations.

  8. Jane Gentile-Youd says:

    What a horrid situation for our valued and needed public safety staff. May 6,2013 a day in infamy forever blemishes Flagler County. We should unite as caring and compassionate citizens picket the county building until Coffey is fired and charged criminally – his stash of retirement or ‘going away gift’ should be distributed among all those who are being thrown to the dogs by their own greedy insurance company.

    Who, in their right mind, would be looking for a career in law enforcement in Flagler County with what is now a disgrace, a dishonor and an undeserving punishment to our guys and gals who risk their lives to take care of us.

    Time for us, as a community, to stand by them – the judge sounds like he needs to recuse himself unless he is following the upside down laws in favor of the thieving insurance carrier. Our sheriff is caught in the middle and all the while Coffey is probably out buying himself some more spiffy suits and laughing which he seems to do best. What a nightmare

  9. woody says:

    Only thing staly is worried about is his re election He doesn’t give a dam about his employees or community

  10. Flatsflyer says:

    Why are employees spending money for their illness, real or perceived. I think each and everyone has full medical insurance. Why isn’t that insurance paying medical bills? What do the medical professionals treating these employees say about their condition? 30 Medical professionals offering opinions and diagnosis should have some bearing on the real issues.This is not the first time there have been “requests” to help employees, I believe there is even a Fund that is available for Deputies. If Deputies need public assistance, what about people that earn half as much as these employees?

  11. Support of Flaglers Finest says:

    To those of you quick to put us back in that building, I am assuming you don’t know anyone that has worked there. This matter doesn’t just effect the 75 people that were assigned there, it effects all 300 of us, not to mention “Joe Public” that may need to report a crime, or provide a statement in a case, or an innocent victim your child sent there on a school trip, your mother/father that wants to take part in the citizens academy, your wife/sister who is interested in protecting herself and wants to take the self defense course. This situation effects EVERY RESIDENT OF THIS COUNTY! So quick to call the sick “fake” or accuse them of “faking it” then move your office in their Mr. Coffey, or anyone else who thinks that way! Unless you’re willing to give it a go, how dare you rush to judgment or follow up with disgusting comments. And for the record, to my knowledge, you can’t “fake” CANCER or LUPUS! These first responders are far from “bandwagon sick”, some have life changing illness’s.

  12. We deserve more says:

    We serve and protect the citizens of this county and now we are getting sick helping you. We deserve to be compensated for helping you and we deserve to be able to retire early and enjoy our families. I’m tired of taxpayers complaining about first responders. You owe us!

  13. Richard says:

    What a CF of comments. The only one that hits the nail is Support of Flaglers Finest.

  14. atilla says:

    Bad choice of words. YOU OWE US!!! YOU chose this job, YOU were paid, YOU can quit and get a different job. YOU, YOU , YOU. We don’t owe you shit. Stop the whining and move on.

  15. JustBeNice says:

    I support our men and women in green! As a former Canadian I can tell you that universal health care doesn’t work. Anything the government dips their hand into becomes poison. I wonder if some of the big law firms would file a class action suit on behalf of the sick employees against the people who bought the building in the first place?

  16. A Concerned Observer says:

    Comments to the Commenters: First, anyone that says or even thinks that Sheriff Staly does not care about his employees or this county is laboring under a gross misconception. You likely have had no personal interaction with him and blindly believe whatever his politically motivated detractors or the fourth estate has to say. He cares far more than most people know.

    Insurance Companies: These are for profit companies who have many employees and most likely, several overpaid executive salaries and bonuses to pay. Most also have corporate other perks (like private aircraft) way beyond the reach or even the imagination of their policyholders. They have investors that rightfully expect dividends on their stocks. In order to survive, any for profit company must take in more in premiums and investments than they pay out in claims. Are the executives likely to give up their exorbitant salaries and perks to pay more claims without doing whatever they can to diminish or drag out their payouts? Not even close to being likely. In their defense, there are countless people who will take every advantage of any event whatsoever to scam any cash settlement they can. If you will check any telephone book you will find many, many pages of “Dewey Cheatem and How” personal injury law firms who blatantly advertise to ”take your case and collect no fee unless you collect”. So, what has the claimant to lose? There must be some measure of investigation to weed out the honest from the frivolous and some outright false claims. So, what is the answer? Government Run Insurance?

    Government Run Insurance: Anyone believing this will be the panacea to Americans health care woes is living in a fantasy world. First of all, the government cannot give anything to anyone without first taking it away from someone else. Guess who that “someone else” will be? Yes, the US Taxpayers. Does anyone believe that a government run healthcare system will somehow be impervious to cheats and scammers? I think not. So, will there still be a need to investigate claims for their validity? Yes, of course. Who will administer and staff these thousands of positions? Scrupulous, altruistic elected officials and political appointees you say? So, what have we gained? Anyone believing government run healthcare is the answer for the United States should have an honest discussion with a Canadian who has had to deal with their unwieldy and bureaucratic system. I have personal experience where an Alzheimer’s patient missed an appointment they had waited weeks or months to get, and had to go back the end of the line to wait for the next available opening. Those that can afford it come to the US for treatment.

    What is the answer you rightfully may ask? I don’t know. Unless we can eliminate peoples greed and generically create altruistic political leaders, there is no simple answer. Communism has failed. Capitalism seems to be circling the drain. Interestingly enough, both failures largely caused by individual greed. Society is the cause, and changing society is the only cure.

  17. Dave says:

    Maybe if the police in the county would stop arresting people with less than an ounce of marijuana ,the people in this community would support you. But I must admit all the controversy surrounding the police,with being drunk on duty and being racist and sexist at the courthouse and arresting people with marijuana what do you expect from the community?

  18. Morons says:

    The education requirement to be a deputy is a G.E.D. no wonder most of them sound so uneducated and are so demanding. Raise the education requirement to at least a bachelor’s degree and smarter people will apply.

  19. Joe Barile says:

    I would just like to address the comment made by “We deserve more” and stated, “You owe us!”. I can only hope that the person who made this comment is not an employee and is someone hiding behind a fake name because it is someone trying to pit the public against us. That is most certainly not my view and I would never tell anyone that they owe me anything. I proudly and humbly chose this profession almost 12 years ago and not once did I think the public owed me anything. I chose to serve the public and be there for them. I am very confident most of my fellow Public Servants agree with me. I can only hope that the selfish comment made by one individual, who we don’t even know the true identity of, has not changed anyone’s opinion for the worst when it comes to their trust and support of Law Enforcement. I have grown up in this community and have served it almost my entire adult life. The support we receive is amazing and by far one of the most pro-law enforcement communities around. If the comment was made by and actual law enforcement officer, I would like to apologize for them and thank everyone for their continued support.

  20. gmath55 says:

    Just because somebody has a Bachelor’s Degree doesn’t necessary make him or her smarter then somebody with a G.E.D. I have known people with PhD’s and have no common sense and dumb as box of rocks. A degree measures your ability to attend and complete college. A degree proves nothing about IQ. Just handwork, dedication, time, and more money.

  21. Here for you says:

    I personally worked with these dedicated individuals. They deserve more than your disrespect. The County for years has treated the Sheriff’s Office like second class citizens. Making them beg for every penny needed while they spend our money foolishly. This is a prime example. Mr. Coffey needs to go. The sooner the better. I want to know why was it so easy for Flagler Beach PD to resolve their problem, but not the Sheriff’s Office?

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