An otherwise innocuous workers’ compensation case highlights one of the ways that the legal system is stilted against injured workers in Missouri. Whenever there are conflicting medical opinions about how a worker got hurt – and there usually are – administrative law judges have to decide which doctor is more credible. Those credibility findings are extremely difficult to overturn on appeal, and usually fall in line with the political interests of the people who appointed the judge.
Administrative Law Judge Denies Benefits: Worker Not on the Job Long Enough
The case, Sample v. Drivers Management, involved a newly-hired delivery worker who began having back problems. Multiple doctors were involved in his case. One of them said that the onset of the worker’s back problems, which included a herniated disc and nerve issues, was caused by the strenuous activities of his new delivery job. Two other doctors thought that the worker’s prior jobs, some of which were physically demanding, were the real culprits.
The administrative law judge sided with the two doctors. While he noted that the onset of the worker’s symptoms happened soon after he started his delivery job, he also pointed to the fact that the worker only had that job for 17 days. He denied workers’ compensation coverage for the injuries.
The Subjective Nature of Credibility
Whenever a workers’ compensation claim involves conflicting doctor’s opinions – and they often do, as the hurt worker presents their evidence and the employer finds a doctor who will dispute it – it is up to the administrative law judge to weigh each doctor’s credibility.
Unfortunately, gauging someone else’s credibility often revolves around how much we already agree with what the other person is saying. It is also very difficult to explain why we find one person more credible than another.
These problems are exacerbated by the fact that it is almost unheard of to overturn a credibility assessment on appeal.
Administrative Law Judges are Appointed
Because credibility findings are so important and so potent, it becomes essential to ask whether a particular administrative law judge is pro-business or pro-worker. Judges who sympathize with the plight of workers and who try to reign in workplace mistreatment are more likely to find the injured worker’s doctor more credible. Pro-business judges, on the other hand, are more likely to find the employer’s doctor more credible because they assume the worker is making up their injuries.
This begs the question: How do administrative law judges get their job?
Unfortunately for workers, the answer is that they get appointed to their role by Missouri’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. This department is a part of the executive branch in Missouri, which has increasingly catered to business interests over the course of the last few decades.
As we will show in a future blog post, the pro-worker or pro-business attitude of an administrative law judge - the attitude that likely influenced their very appointment - can color the judge's credibility assessment and become difficult to appeal.