News: CJ Exclusives

13-Year Fight Against State Continues

State won't comply with courts in case of wrongful discharge

State employees can expect a long and arduous fight if they want to address grievances with their employer, at least if their grievances are like those of former state parole and probation officer James Lewis. For the last 13 years Lewis has been in and out of courtrooms, and he has been up against the seemingly limitless legal resources of North Carolina’s state government.

The N.C. Department of Corrections fired Lewis, 52, in 1993 for allegedly making personal phone calls and taking care of personal business while on the state’s clock, this according to court documents from the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Lewis said the accusations were false and sued his former employer for wrongful discharge. His case went before the OAH in 1994 and the court ruled that he was, in fact, wrongfully discharged.

In court documents Judge Thomas West states, “James L. Lewis is ordered to be reinstated with all rights, seniority and raises as if he were never discharged.” The judge goes on to say that Lewis can return to his job when a doctor says he is fit to return. Lewis suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that medical records say resulted from the events surrounding the dismissal from his job.

The case of James Lewis begs the question: why have 13 years passed and the legal system still has not finalized his case? Also, why the state is willing to spend far more in legal fees at the taxpayer’s expense than it actually owes Lewis, a sum, according to Lewis, that amounts to about $6,000.

At least some of the answers can probably found in the realities of Worker’s Compensation laws. George W. Lennon, the attorney currently representing Lewis, said he could not comment on the case because it is still pending, but he offered some insight into Workers Compensation law. “Originally, Workers Compensation was meant to provide ‘a swift and certain benefit’ to the injured employee, but in many cases it has turned out to be anything but that,” he said. “Workers Comp began as a very straight-forward system but it has evolved to be very complicated.”

Lewis’ health problems complicate his case with state government. Besides having a medically diagnosed case of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Lewis is also diabetic. Because his stress disorder is linked to his job as a probation and parole officer he is eligible for Worker’s Comp, but the reason Lewis says he had to go on disability was because of the aggravation it caused his diabetes.

“My blood sugar was sky high and the doctors couldn’t get it down with the normal drugs so they told me to quit work or I might stroke out,” said Lewis. While he has been battling state bureaucracy he has had to pay for medical bills to treat his condition, which he says was caused by his job. “I think they know my life expectancy and they’re dragging this thing out until I die,” said Lewis. “And they don’t want to get hooked up to paying for my health because they know these bills will mount up maybe for years.”

Handling Workers Comp claims for the employees of North Carolina’s state government have been contracted out to Key Risk Management Services, Inc. And Key Risk does not believe that Lewis’ diabetes is work related so they do not want to pay his bills. So Lewis took his case to the North Carolina Industrial Commission where Key Risk was named as a co-defendant, along with the Department of Corrections.

And the commission ruled that indeed Lewis’ medical bills for his diabetes were work related, saying in the court document, “The Full Commission finds that plaintiff’s original compensable injury exacerbated or aggravated plaintiff’s diabetic condition.” This decision was handed down in December of 2004 but the state has appealed the decision. Lewis and his attorney now have to go back to court.

It may be several months before a hearing comes up to address this case and when the case is heard it will be fifth time this case has gone before a judge over the last 13 years. The last four courts have ruled in Lewis’ favor, but it remains to be seen what the Industrial Commission will rule next for James Lewis.

“All I want is closure and justice,” said Lewis.

Johnny Kerr is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.