Kansas SC affirms decision awarding employee injury benefits despite fraudulent application

By Sara McCleary | Apr 4, 2017

TOPEKA, Kan. (Legal Newsline) - The Kansas Supreme Court has upheld a state Court of Appeals decision that a fraudulent employment application does not preclude a person from being considered an employee under the Kansas Workers Compensation Act.

Unified School District 233 (U.S.D. 233) had tried to deny that former worker Leticia Mera-Hernandez is eligible for benefits as a result of injuries she suffered at work because she had applied to and been hired for the position using a false name and identification documents.

In 2009, Mera-Hernandez had been hired by U.S.D. 233 as a custodian, but because she was not legally authorized to work in the US, she had used the name Hilda Reina for her application and during her subsequent employment, according to court documents.

In March 2012, Mera-Hernandez suffered a back injury from moving furniture while working. U.S.D. 233 paid for her initial medical treatment, but when she returned to work she continued to have pain and sought further treatment, for which U.S.D. 233 refused to pay. As a result, Mera-Hernandez filed a workers' compensation claim under her real name, alerting U.S.D. 233 that she had applied fraudulently, so it terminated her employment.

Mera-Hernandez initially brought her case before an administrative law judge, who found she was eligible for benefits under the Kansas Workers Compensation Act, despite her misrepresentations. The decision was upheld by the appeals board for the Kansas Division of Workers Compensation, as well as the Kansas Court of Appeals.

Most recently, U.S.D. 233 brought its appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court, which issued its ruling March 24.

In its written opinion, the Supreme Court outlines U.S.D 233’s argument, explaining “U.S.D. 233 seeks to avoid responsibility for its de facto employee’s work-related injuries by declaring that the worker’s fraudulent misrepresentations in the hiring process voided Mera-Hernandez’ employment contract from the beginning, as a matter of law; and that, without a legally valid employment contract, Mera-Hernandez is not covered by the Act.”

In denying U.S.D. 233’s argument, the high court points to the law’s definition of an employee as “any person who has entered into the employment of or works under any contract of service or apprenticeship with an employer.”

The court agreed with the appeals court's stance on this point, citing its written opinion that states “Mera-Hernandez, clearly qualifying as any person, did enter into the employment of U.S.D. 233. She did the work she was directed to do by U.S.D. 233, and U.S.D. 233 paid her for that work, albeit under a different name.”

U.S.D. 233 argued that contract law’s general principles supersede the law’s definition, therefore one must first determine if a valid employment contract existed before looking to the act.

The Supreme Court, however, found that precedent exists for the opposite, citing In re Marriage of Traster, which clearly sets out that “once the legislature has spoken, the legislative statement supersedes the common law.”

In the end, the high court upheld all the lower courts’ decisions awarding Mera-Hernandez benefits, finding “she meets the definition of an employee under the Act and there is no other provision of the Act which would disqualify her from receiving benefits.”

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