Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dealing with claimants and their bad internet habits

A claimant’s experience, knowledge, and representations on the internet are important to investigate claims of disability. 

There has been a lot of commentary lately about hunting down pictures on Facebook and other web pages of claimants acting inconsistent with their claims. In Missouri, for example, an employer used internet evidence that hauling heavy watermelons was inconsistent with a claim of a work place back injury. Such pictures still didn’t stop a judge from awarding benefits. In Dwyer v Federal Express, 2011 MO. WCLR Lexis 98, claimant was awarded disability to his back despite pictures showing him pulling very large watermelons out of the back of pickups and carrying them. The ALJ accepted the explanation that “the pictures were staged for his fans and he was not actually carrying any weight.”

In an interesting form of impeachment, an ALJ noted claimant was untruthful about several things and had a "difficulty telling the truth, even listing himself as 'single' on an internet dating site."
Mountjoy v Curators of the Univ. of MO, 2014 MOWCLR Lexis 118 (Sept. 24, 2014).

Claimants may rely upon inaccurate information about a medical condition or its cause based on internet resources. Many claimants may lack the ability to assess whether internet sources are reliable or relevant to their particular condition.  In Hayden v Ameriwood Industries, 2011 Mo WCLR Lexis 115 claimant failed to prove a claim for disability when he relied in part on evidence of an article from Wikipedia.

Experts, similarly, have also been criticized for relying upon internet sources. In Crowell v Sigma Chemical Co., 2002 MO WCLR Lexis 108 the Commission harshly criticized a defense expert retained shortly before a hearing who disputed causation based on opinions derived from chat rooms: “We find it difficult to accept information obtained through a chat room is recognized as authoritative in the medical field ….” Similarly, an expert was found less credible when he relied upon medical abstracts, internet sources that were not authoritative or contained studies, and websites that were involved in fund-raising. Rufer v Monett Metals, 2008 Mo WCLR Lexis 163.

A claimant who can operate a computer or has internet experience is one factor to consider if the claimant may be more easily retrained or placed.   In Tilley V USF Holland Inc., 325 S.W.3d 487 (Mo. 2010) the claimant was awarded total disability. Claimant “does not have a computer or internet access at his home. Claimant does not use the internet and has never operated a computer.” In Jordan v USF Holland Motor Freight, 2011 MO. WCLR 253, affirmed SD 31824 (October 31, 2012) claimant alleged he was unemployable and stated: “He knows how to get on the internet but does not know how to use it.”

 In Flannery v Breckenridge Material Co., 2006 Mo WCLR Lexis 141: Claimant is noted that “He can access the internet and knows how to send and receive e-mail.” In Elmore v Mo. State Treasurer, 345 S.W.3d 361 (Mo. App. 2011) it is noted that “Claimant is able to use her computer at home to send emails and search the Internet.”  Even persons with no prior internet experience may be able to acquire basic computer skills unless some medical conditions prevent it. The bigger obstacle to learning internet skills is not a capacity to learn but a neoLuddite desire not to learn. 
 The internet will influence  claimants in different ways.  The internet is a tool which could be used to acquire  medical or legal knowledge.  Like most tools, it has a potential for misuse.  The ability to access the internet has even been recognized for its therapeutic value.  In a case involving catastrophic injuries, the Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed an award of a home computer system as medical benefits “to allow a claimant to communicate with friends and family over the Internet.” Beelman Trucking v Il Worker’s Compensation Commission, 909 N.E. 818 (IL 2009).