Injured truckers’ class action against employer can proceedPosted On: Jul. 25, 2019 1:32 PM CST
Several dozen injured truck drivers who claim their trucking company has improperly forced them to live in another city for medical care and light-duty work can sue their employer in a class action, an appellate court in Iowa ruled Wednesday in a decision that the Iowa Supreme Court ruled will stay.
Anthony Roland, the first plaintiff in the suit and a resident of Oxford, Alabama, was working as a truck driver for the Des Moines, Iowa, firm Annette Holdings LLC, which requires all of its drivers as a condition of their employment to sign a memorandum of understanding that states if one is injured they may be required to temporarily relocate to Des Moines for modified duty work, according to documents in Anthony Roland v. Annett Holdings Inc., filed in the Court of Appeals of Iowa in Des Moines.
The memorandum also states that “Iowa Law allows Annett Holdings to suspend workers’ compensation benefits to an injured worker if an injured worker fails to accept and work in the modified duty position offered by Annett Holdings” and that “because drivers agree to be away from home as an essential function and an agreed upon term of their employment with Annett Holdings, injured workers are expected to temporarily relocate and perform their modified duty work in Des Moines, Iowa, irrespective of your state of residence.”
Mr. Roland, following an injury to his elbow in 2014, was relocated to Des Moines after preliminary medical treatment in Indiana, where his injury occurred. In Iowa, he was provided access to further medical care, 897 miles away from his home in Alabama, documents state.
“Dissatisfied with the medical care he was receiving in Des Moines, Roland asked Annett Holdings to authorize treatment by an orthopedic surgeon in Alabama,” documents state. Annett Holdings agreed and paid for elbow surgery in Alabama. Still recovering, the company then assigned Mr. Roland to modified-duty work in Iowa, forgoing follow-up care in Alabama, according to documents.
Mr. Roland then petitioned the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commission seeking alternate medical care in his home state. The deputy commissioner concluded the memorandum of understanding functionally deprived Roland of reasonable medical care.
In granting Mr. Roland’s petition, the commissioner explained: “The agreement signed by Roland is contrary to the law and case law of Iowa because it attempts to use an agreement to relieve the employer from part of its liability to provide reasonably suited treatment for the injury without undue inconvenience to the employee under (law). The agreement appears to be an attempt to either avoid or eliminate both the reasonable and undue inconvenience clauses in Iowa Code.”
Annett Holdings sought judicial review and a district court affirmed. Annett Holdings then appealed, and the Court of Appeals of Iowa affirmed, “finding substantial evidence supported the agency’s conclusion the MOU, as applied to Mr. Roland, violated Iowa” law.
Less than a week after that decision, Mr. Roland sued Annett Holdings on behalf of himself and others similarly situated, according to documents. He cited the company’s continued attempts to compel him to travel to Des Moines for the light-duty work program despite judicial direction otherwise. Mr. Roland alleged Annett Holdings acted in bad faith and violated his statutory rights and those of similarly situated employees. Mr. Roland sought compensatory and punitive damages and that the district court to certify the matter as a class action, according to documents.
A district court held a hearing on the class certification in 2018. Annett Holdings moved to decertify the class action despite the facts that some 40 injured drivers had been subjected to the MOU, according to documents.
That district court decided Mr. Roland and the other drivers met the requirements for class certification, writing “a central issue common to the proposed class is the lawfulness or validity of the MOU as it relates to the light duty work and medical care provided in Iowa. This common question clearly predominates over any questions” on the similar cases.
Annett Holdings then appealed the court’s certification of the class, asserting Mr. Roland did not “show the existence of a question of law or fact common to a (the) class,” documents state. At that time, the state Supreme Court granted a stay of the district court's proceedings until conclusion of the appeal, according to documents.
Citing that the district court did not abuse its discretion in certifying the class, the appeals court affirmed.
The “generalized evidence is the legality of the MOU, properly recognized by the district court as central to each member’s claim,” Wednesday’s appeals court ruling states. “Even if individual class members may offer evidence specific to their own injuries and what medical treatment was reasonably necessary, the elephant in the room will continue to be the MOU and its conflict with (state law).”
The company and attorneys involved could not immediately be reached for comment.