A Midwest City firefighter last month was awarded $15,100 in workers' compensation disability payments after his knee locked up while digging out a gopher hole in his own yard.
The firefighter's attorney is the husband of Gov. Mary Fallin, who has been pushing for workers' compensation reform. The judge who awarded the disability payments is a Fallin appointee.
Injured firefighter Jerry Clayton Carroll, 40, was awarded the disability benefit after he and his attorneys successfully convinced workers' compensation judges that his injury stemmed from a hyper extended knee injury he suffered eight months earlier while running on a treadmill at work.
Critics of Oklahoma's adversarial workers' compensation court system have long complained award determinations are overly influenced by politically connected attorneys and dueling doctors' opinions.
Carroll's attorney, D. Wade Christensen, is as politically connected as they come. He's the governor's husband.
And doctors' opinions in the case were far apart.
Dr. LeRoy Young, whose opinion was sought out by Carroll's employer, said he thought the firefighter had sustained 10 percent impairment to his knee.
Meanwhile, Dr. M. Stephen Wilson, a doctor whose opinion was sought out by Christensen's law firm, issued an opinion that Carroll had 39 percent impairment to the knee.
An injury must be work-related to even qualify for workers' compensation payments.
Carroll said running on a treadmill is part of required conditioning exercises for Midwest City firemen.
Carroll testified he hurt his knee on the treadmill more than eight months before his knee locked up while he and his 6-year-old son were digging out a gopher hole in their yard with a small garden trowel.
Carroll filed an accident report with his supervisor after the treadmill incident but continued performing conditioning exercises and didn't seek medical attention until after the incident at his home.
Carroll did not return calls for comment Friday.
When Carroll filed his workers' compensation claim, Midwest City attorneys challenged it.
They cited an April 11, 2012, report by Young, the doctor they chose, who said he thought Carroll had suffered an “intervening injury” more than eight months after the treadmill incident that was responsible for Carroll's medical complaints.
Wilson, whose opinion was sought by Christensen's firm, disagreed.
“It is my opinion that Mr. Carroll has sustained a significant injury to his right leg/knee due to a work related accident while employed by the Midwest City Fire Department,” Wilson stated.
John McCormick, a workers' compensation judge at the time, sided with the arguments of Carroll's attorneys and ordered the city to pay Carroll's medical bills, which included surgery for a torn medial meniscus cartilage.
The city appealed, but the ruling was upheld by a three-judge appeal panel.
On Valentine's Day, Carroll's case came back up before the Workers' Compensation Court.
This time, a judge who had been appointed by Gov. Fallin was asked to decide how much Carroll should receive as a permanent partial disability award and how much of that amount his attorney — the governor's husband — should be paid for representing him.
Judge Margaret Bomhoff ruled that Carroll's knee had 17 percent impairment and that Carroll should be paid $15,100, with $3,020 of that going to the governor's husband's firm as an attorney fee. The fee was 20 percent of the award, which is the maximum percentage that can be awarded and the standard fee in most cases.
Potential for conflict
The judge and a spokesman for Gov. Fallin and her husband denied the situation created a conflict of interest.
“I just don't see that as a conflict,” said Judge Bomhoff, who was appointed to her $124,373 a year position by Fallin. “If I did see that there was a conflict, I would recuse (step aside) on any case.”
Alex Weintz, the governor's communications director, said, “Governor Fallin and the first gentleman have gone above and beyond what is required of them to ensure there is no conflict of interest regarding Mr. Christensen's legal practice. Out of an abundance of caution, Gov. Fallin requested opinions from both the Ethics Commission and the attorney general. Both have stated that Mr. Christensen's work is legal and ethical.”
Weintz was referring to a 2011 attorney general's opinion and 2011 ethics interpretation in which the question was asked whether it would be a conflict of interest for the governor's husband to be paid by CompSource to defend claims filed against the workers' compensation insurance agency.
The attorney general ruled CompSource funds are not state funds, so Christensen could do work for CompSource. Pruitt was not asked to rule on whether it would be a conflict for a judge appointed by the governor to directly decide how much the governor's husband should receive as an attorney's fee.
A much bigger financial conflict of interest could face the first family if the Legislature passes and the governor is asked to approve a bill switching the state from a Workers' Compensation Court system to an administrative system. It is anticipated such a change would dramatically reduce the role of workers' compensation attorneys and the pay they could expect to receive.