In that Order
By A.J. Wagner
As promised, I will continue the tour of selected decisions from the 2011 – 2012 term of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).
Workers Compensation is a special set of laws available in every state. Although each state has its own set of rules, workers compensation is generally a state–sponsored disability insurance that provides workers with healthcare and some of their lost wages if they are injured while on the job. Even when the worker is at fault for the injury, workers compensation is made available. In exchange for this coverage, the worker gives up the right to sue the employer for any fault it may have in causing the injury.
The Supreme Court of Ohio deals with many workers compensation cases each year, but it is unusual for SCOTUS to deal with these issues since the states create the workers compensation laws for their respective jurisdictions. Pacific Operators Offshore v. Valladolid however, involves a workers compensation law passed by the United States Congress to cover offshore oil workers who work on platforms outside the jurisdiction of any particular state.
The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) states: “With respect to disability or death of an employee resulting from any injury occurring as the result of operations conducted on the outer Continental Shelf for the purpose of exploring for, developing, removing, or transporting by pipeline the natural resources, or involving rights to the natural resources, of the subsoil and seabed of the outer Continental Shelf, compensation shall be payable under the provisions of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.”
Juan Valladolid worked for Operators Offshore, LLP (Pacific), which operates two drilling platforms on the Outer Continental Shelf and an onshore processing facility in California. Valladolid was a general maintenance worker who worked 98 percent of his time on the offshore platforms and occasionally onshore. He died in a forklift accident onshore and his wife filed for workers compensation under OCSLA.
The question before the Court was whether Valladolid should be covered when he was injured on land. Though I want you to know generally about workers compensation, I am writing about this decision primarily to show that all nine justices often do agree on the issue before them. In this case, all nine agreed that OCSLA extends coverage to an employee who can establish a substantial nexus between his injury and his employer’s extractive operations on the Outer Continental Shelf.
Plea bargaining is a mainstay of our criminal justice system. A defendant is charged with a crime, or multiple crimes, but as evidence is analyzed and witnesses are questioned, a prosecutor might decide it best to allow the defendant to plead guilty to a less serious offense more in line with what can be proven by the evidence. The prosecutor might also be satisfied to get a conviction on the most serious charge while dropping the remaining charges. Often the plea bargain involves a promise of less than maximum penalty possible under the law.
Plea bargaining is necessary. More than 95 percent of criminal cases end in a plea. If every case went to trial, we would need 10 to 20 times more prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors and judges along with the courtrooms to hold them all. We can’t afford that so plea bargaining is a daily occurrence in our courts.
Plea bargains are often done in a hurry. The offer is made when the attorney arrives at the courthouse and the attorney has no time to investigate the facts of the case while the defendant is given little time to consider all the ramifications of the plea. In fact, it is rare for a felon to understand all of the ramifications of a guilty plea since many collateral sanctions, such as future job limitations, license revocations, government aid disqualifications and more go unstated. The University of Toledo has looked at the issue of collateral sanctions and found more than 400 exist in Ohio depending on the felony. Those 400 possible sanctions are never mentioned when the defendant enters a plea.
Plea offers can also be made by a prosecutor and rejected by the defense attorney out—of—hand without the defendant knowing an offer was made.
The Supremes weighed in on the plea bargaining process this term with decisions in two cases: Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frey. The result is to slow the process down a bit and ensure that both attorney and client are aware of the offered bargain and the facts of the case. As a result of these decisions, attorneys will be required to reveal all offers and be given the chance to investigate the facts of the case prior to making a plea.
Collateral sanctions were not a part of these decisions but I believe it is only a matter of time before they too are addressed by the courts.