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Archive for the ‘Attorney General’ Category

Liz Murrill, the texting attorney who advised Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols that the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) was not necessary because the changes in the state’s Office of Group Benefits (OGB) plans did not meet the legal definition of “rule,” is gone.

Murrill sparred verbally with legislators during the Sept. 25 hearing on the proposed changes to OGB coverage of state employees and retirees by the House Appropriations Committee, telling them the APA was unnecessary in order that the Division of Administration (DOA) might implement huge increases to co-pays and deductibles that OGB members would be required to pay.

Throughout emotional testimony by OGB members who said their health care expenses might exceed their monthly pensions and others who related problems experienced with MedImpact, the state’s $350 million pharmacy benefit manager, Murrill could be seen texting while seated immediately behind witnesses. One observer said virtually the entire DOA staff sitting in the audience was also texting during testimony but only Murrill was constantly visible on the video being streamed live via the Internet.

But as embarrassing as that should have been to the administration, it was probably her advice that the APA was legally unnecessary.

Even an attorney general’s opinion released on Sept. 23, two days before the Appropriations Committee hearing failed to convince Murrill of her shaky legal position.

The opinion said the Jindal administration simply ignored the APA which requires a certain amount of publicity, public comment and legislative review before policy changes can be adopted.

But Murrill was quick to voice her difference with Assistant Attorney General Emily Andrews who authored the opinion at the request of State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite).

“We fundamentally disagree that the schedule of benefits meets the legal definition of ‘rule’ in the APA,” she said, “because it does not apply to the general public or any subset of the regulated public.”

Both Nichols and Murrill were grilled by a procession of legislators at the hearing, many of whom were not members of the Appropriations Committee but nevertheless had questions they wanted to ask on behalf of constituents.

At the times the exchanges became tinged with poorly concealed animosity as Nichols and Murrill fielded questions from one legislator after another once OGB members were finished with their testimony. The pair allowed their contempt for legislators surface from time to time while Legislators let it be known that they were losing patience with Jindal and his minions.

Murrill, while at the witness table, adamantly refused to concede that APA was required to be adhered to but on Tuesday (Oct. 14), once DOA had been called out on the matter and Murrill was out of the picture, APA notices of intent began going out toe legislators.

Once away from the table and back in the audience, she resumed her texting.

Now she has all the time she needs for texting.

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As legal setbacks begin to mount for Gov. Bobby Jindal with the indictment of a former Jindal cabinet member coupled with an attorney general’s opinion that recently announced changes to state employee group health plans are most probably illegal, one political observer intimated to LouisianaVoice that Jindal’s political career “may be coming unraveled” even as he remains fixated on the White House.

The attorney general’s office on Tuesday (Sept. 23) released a legal opinion that could signal a devastating blow to the administration’s plans to overhaul health benefit plans offered through the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) to some 230,000 state employees, retirees and dependents.

The opinion was requested on Sept. 9 by State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite), who wrote, “…The Office of Group Benefits proposes to make major plan changes, effective Jan. 1, 2015, which changes conflict with existing provisions contained in the Louisiana Administrative Code.”

LouisianaVoice has learned that word of the request was leaked to the administration after seeking and receiving a copy of the request through a public records request and Jindal dispatched Executive Counsel Thomas Enright to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office to lobby the state’s chief legal officer to issue an opinion favorable to the administration.

When it became evident that Caldwell’s opinion would not be favorable to the administration, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Kreme Nichols capitulated in advance when she said last Friday that the state would go through the rule-making process spelled out in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

“But they’ve already put the changes out there,” Edwards said. “They implemented changes in the prescription drug co-pay in August without observing the proper legal procedure and would be deemed null and void if challenged in court. It will be impossible to do this (the remaining proposed OGB changes) by Jan. 1. The process would have had to have been started as early as June and as late as July of this year in order to become effective by the time the new plans will go into place.

Edwards was not the only legislator to voice criticism of the administration just two days before the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet on Thursday to hear comments on the proposed health care coverage changes.

State Rep. J. Rogers Pope (R-Denham Springs), a member of both the Appropriations Committee and the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, said he has consistently opposed the governor’s intervention into the operations of OGB both in committee and on the House floor.

“The heavy hand and somewhat sleight of hand of the Jindal administration to make such a drastic change to the health care benefit program that will impact some 230,000 people in Louisiana is a disgrace and a slap in the face for the many who have contributed to this health care program and expected it to provide basic healthcare coverage,” he said.

Pope urged those affected by the proposed changes to attend Thursday’s 10 a.m. meeting in the State Capitol to provide comments and to ask questions.

Former State Sen. Butch Gautreaux (D-Morgan City) also weighed in on the latest development. Gautreaux, who served on the OGB board of directors during his final term in the Senate, said he felt as though Jindal privatized the agency because he “couldn’t be embarrassed by the best managed and most cost effective health insurance department in all 50 states.”

Gautreaux said the OGB board began asking for answers as soon as Jindal indicated his desire to privatize the agency. “When the board couldn’t get the administration to a board meeting, I called a special meeting of the Senate Retirement Committee, again asking the governor to inform us of his intentions,” he said. “Paul Rainwater (then Commissioner of Administration) attended reluctantly but could only tell us that government had no business in running a health insurance agency. He couldn’t tell us why because the logical answer would be cost savings but the opposite was the truth. Our complaints fell on deaf ears because the business was already promised.”

Gautreaux said the “corruption began when Timmy Teepell (Jindal’s original Chief of Staff) instructed Tommy Teague (the OGB Executive Director until teagued by Jindal when he balked at the privatization of OGB) to write a tightly written RFP (request for proposal)…for northeast Louisiana so that only one company could meet the (bid) criteria.”

“Jindal’s OGB mess goes much deeper than we thought,” Edwards said. “The mismanagement of the $500 million OGB fund balance is just the beginning. Jindal’s mean-spirited solution to this self-created is being forced down the throats of state workers illegally.

“I believe this failure to comply with the APA speaks volumes about the quality of the plans. This administration knows that they are unfairly shifting the costs to state workers and teachers. Why else would they go to such great lengths, even breaking the law, to avoid public input and legislative oversight?”

Of the belated decision by the administration to comply with the law, Edwards said, “It’s too little, too late, from an administration that has consistently disregarded its legal obligations and fiscal duties to the people of our state.”

Under the APA, the procedure for the adoption of rules requires a minimum of 100 days which puts the administration under the gun to meet a tight deadline. Other requirements include:

  • Notice of the intended action and a copy of the proposed rules at least 90 days prior to taking action on the rule;
  • A statement, approved by the Legislative Fiscal Office, of the fiscal impact and the economic impact of the intended action;
  • The name of the person within the agency who has responsibility for responding to inquiries (in this case, Ansafone temporary phone bank workers in California and Florida);
  • The time when, the place where, and the manner in which interested persons may present their views;
  • A statement that the intended action complies with statutory law, including a citation of the enabling legislation;
  • A statement concerning the impact on family stability, on child, individual or family poverty;
  • Publication of a notice at least once in the Louisiana Register containing the full text of the proposed rule at least 100 days prior to the date the agency will take action on the rule;
  • Upon publication of the notice, copies of the full text of the proposed rule shall be made available upon written request within two working days;
  • Notice of the intent to adopt, amend or repeal any rule and the approved fiscal and economic impact statements shall be mailed to all persons who make timely requests of the agency no later than 10 days after the date the proposed rule change is submitted to the Louisiana Register;
  • All interested persons must be afforded a reasonable opportunity to submit data, views, comments or arguments—orally or in writing.

For a complete list of requirements of the APA, go here: apa

The attorney general opinion said the significant changes proposed by the administration “constitute a modification of the health care plans set forth in Title 32 and also has the effect of repealing and/or rendering many of the rules contained in Title 32 obsolete without following the required procedures established by the Louisiana Administrative Procedure Act.”

The APA “requires that agencies comply with the rulemaking procedures set forth in the act when adopting rules,” it said, adding if OGB failed to follow APA procedures which specify that no rules adopted on or after Jan. 1, 1975, is valid unless adopted on substantial compliance with APA, “then the validity of the plans becomes questionable.”

Additionally, the opinion said, “Louisiana jurisprudence has found that rules unlawfully adopted are invalid and unenforceable.”

The opinion noted that the Legislative Fiscal Office found that significant changes to the health plans include:

  • Increasing out-of-pocket maximum for health plan options;
  • Increasing deductibles for all health plan options;
  • Increasing co-pays 100 percent for proposed health plans with co-pays;
  • Increasing the out-of-pocket maximum for the prescription drug benefit by $300—from $1,200 to $1,500 (a 20 percent increase);
  • Subjecting the prescription drug benefit to categories that will result in an increased cost for preferred and brand name drugs and a decreased cost for generic drugs;
  • Implementing other various prescription drug benefit changes including high compound management, over utilization management and the exclusion of medical foods;
  • Requiring prior authorizations for certain medical procedures;
  • Eliminating the out-of-network benefit for some health plan options;
  • Application of standard benefit limits for skilled nursing facilities, home health care services and hospice care services;
  • Removing all vision coverage;

For a copy of the complete attorney general opinion, go here: ATTORNEY GENERAL OPINION

While we have not been in discussion with Gov. Jindal or Kristy Kreme regarding the latest legal setback, we feel we can safely predict that Jindal will call the opinion “Wrong-headed,” while Kristy Kreme will put on a happy face and assure us that everything is just fine and there’s nothing to worry about.

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Two audit reports released this week by Legislative Auditor Daryl Pupera’s office focus on documentation of expenses related to hurricane recovery and costs incurred by the state for vacant office space in downtown New Orleans as part of a costly incentive package to induce Saints owner Tom Benson to keep the NFL team in New Orleans

The first indicates that the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) has invoices for more than $49 million in exceptions, or undocumented expenses by disaster recovery specialists in the perpetual recovery efforts of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike.

The other, which we first wrote about in February of 2013, smacks of the kind of political back scratching for which Louisiana has become famous: the state’s capitulation to New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson as part of a costly incentive package to induce him to keep his team in New Orleans. Part of that package included the state’s leasing of office space in his Benson Towers office building at inflated rental rates, a deal that appears to border on financial irresponsibility.

The report says that auditors evaluated 4,476 expense reimbursements totaling $711 million submitted by disaster recovery “specialists,” and found 665 “exceptions” totaling nearly $49.6 million.

Pupera explained that the questioned expenses do not necessarily indicate fraud or mismanagement but rather a need for more thorough documentation and justification for the invoices. “The money has been allocated but because it’s federal money, we want to be sure that all invoices are adequately justified before they are paid so we won’t have the feds coming back later and asking for their money back,” he said.

He said the exceptions fall into five different categories: contract work ($42.56 million), force account labor ($3.8 million), force account equipment ($1.3 million), materials ($1.8 million) and rented equipment ($88,000).

Other questionable costs included:

Expense reimbursements of $6.6 million which exceeded cost estimates;

Expense reimbursements of $22.7 million not supported by invoices, receipts, lease agreements, contracts, time records, equipment logs, inventory records of other documentation;

Purchases and contracts totaling $11.6 million which did not comply with federal and state procurement requirements;

Expense reimbursements of $11.6 million which did not comply with federal and state procurement requirements;

Expenses of $2.1 million in work which did not comply with FEMA regulations and guidelines;

Duplicate, omitted and/or miscategorized expenses of $5.7 million.

Pupera said once issues raised by auditors are addressed by GOHSEP, most of the expenses will be properly documented for payment. “There may still be some exceptions at the end, but a large majority are expected to be justified,” he said.

Benson purchased the 26-story Dominion Tower in September of 2009 and re-named it Benson Tower. He made the purchase after entering into a generous—to Benson—agreement whereby the state gave away the store to keep the Saints from moving to San Antonio.

One of the stipulations, which expired a couple of years ago, called for visiting teams’ players, coaches, and support staff to pay state income taxes on one-sixteenth on their annual salaries (because they played one of their 16 regular season games in New Orleans, thus earning a 16th of their income in the state). Once that money was received by the Louisiana Department of Revenue, the department immediately issued a check for an identical amount payable to Benson.

Another obligates the state to pay Benson a cool $1 million whenever the NFL awards a Super Bowl to New Orleans.

Benson Tower is located across the street from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. As part of the deal struck between Benson and the state, the Jindal administration agreed to a 20-year lease of some 325,000 square feet of office space at $24 a square foot for various state agencies, some of whom were paying as little as $12 a square foot before being forced to move to Benson Tower in 2011.

At the outset, the state’s obligation was about $7 million a year, $2.4 million more than the $4.6 million the state was paying before the move.

Included in the Benson Tower purchase was a 60,000-square-foot plot encompassing a one-block section of LaSalle Street and part of what once was the New Orleans Centre shopping mall. That facility is now known as Champions Square where Saints tailgate parties are held. Anheuser Busch, makers of Budweiser Beer, has exclusive rights for beer concessions at Champions Square after striking a deal with the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED), also known as the Superdome Commission.

Benson, the seven LSED members (each of whom is appointed by the governor) and their families, businesses and business associates, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome management firm, and Anheuser-Busch distributor Southern Eagle Sales & Service combined to contribute more than $203,000 to Jindal campaigns between 2003 and 2012.

Prior to the Benson Tower deal, the average cost per square foot for state agencies leasing office space in New Orleans was $17.66. In 2012, the first full lease year in Benson Tower, the cost per square foot was $23.78. Rent at the building is tied to the consumer price index and today the cost per square foot is $25.10.

The Louisiana Attorney General’s offices were never relocated to Benson Tower because of a lack of 24-hour access to parking facilities.

The $7.4 million now being paid does not include $625,000 being paid by the state for 24,900 square feet of vacant office space in the building. That amount bumps the state’s annual rent up to $8 million per year.

The audit report said a survey of current listing information on available office space in New Orleans, the range for lease rates is $16 to $22 per square foot, including parking, or an average of $19 per square foot.

Accordingly, for the 347,849 square feet of Benson Tower, including the 24,872 of vacant office space, the state is paying an average of almost $2.1 million per year in excess rent to Benson.

And the state is locked in until 2025—an additional payment in excessive rent of at least $23 million during the remaining life of the agreement, although the lease agreement could be extended beyond 2025, according to Mark Moses, director of the State Office of Facility Planning and Control.

In his response to the audit, Moses said the Saints were “an import part of Louisiana’s culture as well as an economic driver for New Orleans and the rest of the state.”

He said the incentive package delivered to Benson with appropriate wrapping and bows “saved the state more than $280 million in addition to adding nearly $400 million in revenue expected to be generated over the life of the agreement.”

Moses also said the number of parking spaces included in the lease rate should be included with comparing Benson Tower rental rates with market rates in New Orleans.

“Commercial Class A buildings typically include one to two parking spaces per 1,000 square feet under lease,” he said. “Based on the approximate 323,000 square feet of space under lease (the auditor’s office gives the area as 348,000), the standard commercial lease rate would include between 323 and 646 parking spaces. The rental rate for Benson Tower, however, includes 900 parking spaces in the Superdome garages.”

He added that additional parking is also available for $50 per month in the state-owned Health Education Authority of Louisiana (HEAL) garage a block from Benson Tower.

Moses also pointed out that the audit report’s comparisons of market rates failed to mention that most commercial leases of Class A buildings including “pass through language,” which requires tenants to pay a proportionate share of operations and maintenance expenses that exceed base year expenses established in the lease. Pass through rates, he said, can vary depending on operating and maintenance expenses for individual buildings and according to occupancy rates. Benson Tower, he said , does not include pass through language in its lease with the state.

 

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Thanks to the resourcefulness of C.B. Forgotston, LouisianaVoice has obtained a copy of the seven-page report on the Edmonson Amendment and it appears that State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson and trooper Louis Boquet of Houma are legally prohibited from taking advantage of a special amendment adopted on their behalf by the Louisiana Legislature.

Meanwhile, LouisianaVoice received an unconfirmed report concerning the origination of the amendment that if true, adds a new twist to the curious series of events leading up to passage of the amendment in the last hours of the recent legislative session.

The report, authored by Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) board attorney Denise Akers and Florida attorney Robert Klausner, specifically says that Edmonson and Boquet are barred from accepting the retirement windfall because the amendment granting them the special exemption from the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) is unconstitutional on no fewer than three levels.

Klausner and Akers also expressed concern that the source of funding for the increased benefits would have been the Employee Experience Account “which is reserved as the source of future cost of living benefits (for state police retirees and their widows and children) and payments toward the unfunded accrued liability.”

Edmonson, under the amendment would have seen his retirement income increase by $55,000 a year. The amount of what Boque’s retirement increase would have been is unknown.

The report, however, stopped short of recommending that the board file legal action to have Senate Bill 294, signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal as Act 859, declared unconstitutional.

Instead, it recommended that the LSPRS “simply decline to pay any benefit under Act 859” and that the matter “would only need to be litigated if someone benefitting from the act (Edmonson or Boque) filed to enforce it.” The reported added that both men “have indicated they do not desire to enforce it. Thus, LSPRS may incur no litigation cost in this matter.”

The report said that should either man attempt to collect the increase retirement benefits by challenging the board’s refusal to pay the benefits, “it would fall to the attorney general to defend the law, rather than expending (LSPRS) resources to pursue a costly declaratory relief action.”

The report noted that the Louisiana Supreme Court, in a decision handed down only last year, “made it clear that a pension law adopted in violation of constitutional requirements is void and of no effect.” That was the ruling that struck down Jindal’s controversial state pension reform legislation.

“It is our view that pursuit of a declaratory relief or other legal action seeking to declare Act 859 invalid is unnecessary,” the report said. “By determining that it will not enforce the act, the board acts consistent with its fiduciary duty.”

The board still must vote to accept the recommendations of Klausner and Akers and with Jindal and Edmonson controlling the majority of the 11 seats on the LSPRS board, such a vote remains uncertain.

The board is scheduled to take up the matter at its next meeting, set for Sept. 4 but likely to be moved up now that the report is public.

The report also noted that the amendment was not proposed in either the House or the Senate, but added during conference committee.

SB 294 was authored by State Sen. Jean-Paul Morrell and dealt only with administrative procedures in cases in which law enforcement officers came under investigation. State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia) inserted the amendment during conference committee discussion of the bill but recent reports have surfaced that place Morrell, who also was one of the three senators—along with three representatives—who served on the conference committee, squarely at the center of the controversy as well.

Morrell authored the bill at the request of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) but was said to have subsequently told the FOP lobbyist that he would have to “hijack” the bill to conference committee in order to accommodate state police and Edmonson.

FOP President Darrell Basco, a Pineville police officer, said he had no personal knowledge of such events and lobbyist Joe Mapes did not return a phone call from LouisianaVoice.

Jindal, meanwhile, has remained strangely silent on the issue of his signing the bill with no apparent vetting by his legal counsel.

The Klausner report said the act was unconstitutional on three specific counts:

  • The amendment “does not meet the constitutionally required ‘one object’ requirement” which says, “The legislature shall enact no law except by a bill introduced during that session…Every bill…shall be confined tone object. Every bill shall contain a brief title indicative of its object. Action on any matter intended to have the effect of law shall be taken only in open, public meeting.” Conference committee proceedings occur in closed sessions.
  • The amendment “does not meet the germaneness requirement” of the Louisiana Constitution, which says, “No bill shall be amended in either house to make a change not germane to the bill as introduced.”
  • “No notice was provided as required by the constitution for retirement related bills and the bill itself never indicated that proper notice was given, all in violation of the Louisiana Constitution,” which says, “No proposal to effect any change in existing laws or constitutional provisions relating to any retirement system for public employees shall be introduced in the legislature unless notice of intention to introduce the proposal has been published, without cost to the state, in the official state journal on two separate days. The last day of publication shall be 60 days before introduction of the bill. The notice shall state the substance of the contemplated law or proposal, and the bill shall contain a recital that the notice has been given.”

Here is the full Klausner report:

Klausner Report on SB 294

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Editor’s note: The following is a guest column by a Baton Rouge attorney who represents plaintiffs in civil litigation and who chooses to use the nom de plume of Edward Livingston, considered one of the fathers of Louisiana law. 

By Edward Livingston

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) has issued a “fact sheet” about “Louisiana’s Judicial Climate.” http://labi.org/assets/media/documents/JudicialClimateFactSheet_Reduced.pdf

It should not surprise you that big business, and particularly the oil and gas industry, are as much in denial about changes in Louisiana’s judicial climate as they are about changes in the earth’s climate.

The juridical, or artificial, “persons” http://www.legis.state.la.us/lss/lss.asp?doc=109467 who constitute Corporate America hate, hate, hate the civil justice system. When you compare the three branches of government, it’s easy to see why. Through lobbying, donations and favors, they easily influence the legislative branch. As an example, note that after the worst oil spill in history, which caused billions of dollars in personal, economic, and environmental damages, the oil and gas industry was able to derail congressional proposals to raise the meager $75 million damage cap under the Oil Pollution Act. They have similar influence on the executive branch through regulatory capture. Look no further than the Federal Communications Commission, purportedly established to protect consumers, but even under a Democratic president, it is run by a former (and likely future) telecom lobbyist. Is it any wonder that the FCC is working to do away with net neutrality? And of course, our own commissioner of insurance spends our money to run ads and buy billboards accusing us all of committing insurance fraud.

But the judiciary is another kettle of fish. The civil justice system is the one area where common, everyday natural persons have a chance to stand almost as equals to corporate behemoths. Because procedural rules are designed to ensure a fair trial, because ethical rules prevent ex parte lobbying of judges, and because corporate litigants do not know the identity of nor can they attempt to influence individual jurors, it is much more difficult for them to create the lopsided playing field that they are used to in their other dealings with government entities.

This horror at the notion of being subjected to actual justice gave rise to the so-called “tort reform” industry. This industry does two things: It attempts to convince the public, and lawmakers, that the judicial system is inherently unfair, and it tries to sell the notion that the civil justice system is somehow bad for the economy. These attempts, in turn, serve two goals: They seek to poison the minds of potential jurors by creating a bias in favor of defendants in civil cases, and, more importantly, they want to change the substantive rules of law and procedure to decrease corporate liability for wrongdoing.

Tort reformers’ arguments are rife with references to “frivolous lawsuits,” but that’s just a smokescreen. They know that frivolous lawsuits are both vanishingly rare (what in the world is the incentive for a contingent fee lawyer to spend her own money pursuing a lawsuit she probably can’t win?) and rapidly dismissed, usually with sanctions http://www.legis.state.la.us/lss/lss.asp?doc=112283 for the lawyer who filed them. What they’re really concerned about are the lawsuits that have merit, because those are the ones that cost them serious money to repair the damage they’ve done. Whether it’s a person rendered quadriplegic in crash with an 18-wheeler being driven by a drunken driver or a worker burned beyond recognition in an industrial explosion, those are the kinds of cases that the purported “reformers” are really trying to limit.

With that background in mind, let’s turn to LABI’s description of our judicial climate. Its fact sheet focuses on three issues that it contends are harming Louisiana. First, LABI is concerned about legacy lawsuits, that is, lawsuits brought by landowners against oil and gas producers for damage to their land caused by the oil and gas production. They are worried that these lawsuits hurt the oil and gas industry, and by extension the economy, by discouraging production companies from drilling in the state, or by discouraging them from entering the state in the first place. Second, LABI is also worried about the lawsuit brought against ninety-seven oil and gas producers by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. Again, the concern seems to be that the oil and gas industry, and thus the state’s economy, will be harmed by the mere attempt to hold these companies liable for their alleged wrongdoing. Finally, LABI is appalled that defendants cannot request jury trials unless there is more than $50,000 at issue in the case. This deprivation of access to jury trials, due to a threshold that is much greater than that in other states, is said to lead to excessive litigation. The implication is that the judges who try these small cases are giving claimants too much money.

LABI’s fact sheet is full of footnotes and citations, but that should be taken with a grain of salt. While it cites a number of public bodies for raw numbers on suit filings, trials, judges and the like, the raw meat on the effects of these numbers comes almost exclusively from professional tort reform institutions. The primary, if not exclusive, purpose of these organizations – groups like the American Tort Reform Association, American Tort Reform Federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, its Institute for Legal Reform, and Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch – is to complain that the civil justice system hurts the economy and is unfair to corporate defendants. It would be shocking if their work product didn’t support those positions. But if you believe them, I’m sure BP would like to share with you their studies showing how inconsequential the Deepwater Horizon disaster was.

If you’ve made it this far, it probably won’t surprise you to find that LABI’s three big concerns are each, to use a technical legal term, baloney. Let’s start with legacy litigation. In these cases, landowners complain that their oil company lessees acted unreasonably and damaged their land. The underlying problem here – the fact that oil companies have polluted a lot of land in Louisiana – is hardly new (the Louisiana Supreme Court held oil companies liable for land damage as early as 1907), and it resulted from two things: weak rules, and even weaker enforcement of those rules. There’s a marvelous timeline of oil company documents dating back to the 1930s showing that the oil companies knew very well that they were breaking the law and could someday be held accountable for it. http://jonesswanson.com/slfpaecase/timeline/

But the Department of Natural Resources did not promulgate strong rules, and they didn’t even enforce the weak rules they had. The difference? Courts are now actually enforcing both the leases and the regulations, requiring the land to be cleaned up, and that’s costing oil companies a lot of money. Some oil companies are getting popped with huge damage awards to clean up the tremendous messes they made. If you’re a really big landowner in these cases (like former governor Mike Foster), you’ve got some leverage, and the producers will settle with you. If you’re a little guy, not so much.

According to the oil and gas industry, these cases are a huge problem, hampering new oil and gas exploration and putting the state’s economy at risk. Their proposed solution to the problem won’t surprise you – they’ve gone to the legislature and sought repeatedly, and successfully, to take the decision-making on cleanups out of the courts and put it back in the hands of their old pal, the Department of Natural Resources. The legislature has gone along with this, especially this last session when the big landowners (whose cases have already been settled) gave their go-ahead on it.

So, to put it in context, the oil and gas companies are basically like the college kids who trash your rental house during the semester, and then whine when you keep their deposit and otherwise seek to hold them accountable for the damage they’ve done. The difference is the legislature actually listens to these deadbeats.

Perhaps the final irony on legacy cases involves Don Briggs, the head of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA), a big-time tort reformer who for years has been telling anyone who would listen that legacy litigation was killing the oil and gas industry. That was working great for him until he actually filed a lawsuit, and he got put under oath, subject to the penalties for perjury. At that point, as one news outlet put it, “Briggs was forced to admit that he knows of no oil companies that have left or will be leaving Louisiana because of its legal climate. He also has no proof companies even consider the legal climate and was unable to cite any data to back up his long-held claims.” http://www.acadianabusiness.com/business-news-sp-416426703/oil-a-gas/16586-read-briggs-depo-here

If you’re curious about what a tort reform advocate has to say about the legal climate when they’re placed under an oath to tell the truth, you can read his entire deposition here. http://www.theind.com/extras/Official-Transcript-Briggs-Depo.pdf

LOGA’s lawsuit brings us to LABI’s second worry – the SLFPA-E suit. Sometimes, those rowdy college kids didn’t just trash the place; sometimes, on the coast, they destroyed it altogether.   LOGA filed that suit to have the levee board suit declared illegal – LOGA lost. The same operative facts apply, and this suit was opposed by largely the same cast of characters, with the notable addition of Governor Bobby Jindal and his former head of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (and now congressional candidate) Garret Graves. They both leapt to the defense of the poor, beleaguered oil industry against the terrible, greedy levee board that was trying to find some way to raise funds for a $50 billion dollar coastal restoration plan. Unfortunately, Graves has a problematic penchant for telling the truth. First, he admitted that the lawsuit isn’t frivolous at all, but that it has merit, stating, “I will be the first to admit there’s liability there.” [http://www.cleanwaterlandcoast.com/james-gill-graves-shows-lawsuit-needed-2/] Then he pulled the whole “reform” fig leaf off the operation, predicting, “I don’t see any scenario where this levee district doesn’t get gutted – or, say, ‘reformed’ – in the next legislative session.”   http://thelensnola.org/2013/08/22/levee-district-jindal-administration-remain-at-odds-over-lawsuit-a-week-after-hints-of-reconciliation/

Despite all this, the legislature did everything it could do to reform gut the levee board lawsuit; we’ll see if it was successful in giving away the state’s chance to recover billions of dollars to pay for coastal restoration.

Finally, there is that horrible $50,000 jury trial threshold. A little background, and some inside baseball: As many know, Louisiana private law is based on Roman, or civil, law, as received through France and Spain. Unlike the English common law that prevails in the other forty-nine states, Louisiana has no tradition of civil juries. As a result, Louisiana is the only state without a constitutional right to a civil jury trial; Louisiana’s constitution is the only one that requires appellate courts to review both legal and factual findings (like amounts of damages) of trial courts in civil cases; and in Louisiana the litigants, rather than the state or local governments, have to front the money to pay for a civil jury trial.

Over the years, particularly since the adoption of the Code of Civil Procedure in 1960, civil jury trials became more common. Then, in the late 80s and early 90s, a certain insurance company decided that “good hands” required it to refuse to settle any small auto cases, no matter the facts, and to force claimants with such small cases into trial by jury. This had several effects: It made those small cases less economical to litigate, since they were more expensive, and, more importantly, it clogged the courts’ trial calendars with cases, because every case had to set for jury trial. After several years of this foolishness, the district court judges convinced the legislature that jury trials should be limited to relatively large cases; the $50,000 figure that was chosen was the threshold for federal diversity jurisdiction at the time. For truly big (and even not-so-big) cases, everyone still has a statutory right to a jury trial.

So why is this a concern for LABI? Because they don’t like the availability of relatively inexpensive and rapid dispute resolution. It drastically decreases the leverage of insurers, who want to force claimants into accepting lowball settlements. More importantly, by clearing the trial court dockets of small cases, it allows truly large and significant cases to get to trial much sooner, reducing the leverage of defendants in those cases by reducing the systemic delay in resolution of the cases.

How do we know that these are LABI’s concerns, rather than a reverence for the sanctity of the right to a jury trial? Easy. They have never proposed to change the state constitution to provide for a constitutional right to civil jury trials or to prohibit appellate review of facts. If those things were done by the legislature, those rights could be used to overturn things like damage caps, which are nothing more than pre-litigation (and usually pre-accident) findings of fact by the legislature. If they really believed that jury trials were a sacrosanct method of finding facts in a civil trial, they’d be talking about those issues.

So, what is the true judicial climate in Louisiana? Well, if you’re an injured person, a landowner, or a taxpayer, for the last forty years, it’s been changing for the worse. Examples:

 

I could go on; these are just the “greatest hits” of Louisiana tort reform. Every year, tort reformers try, usually with at least some success, to chip away at the rights of citizens and governmental entities to seek redress for corporate wrongdoing. For instance, this year, since the attorney general recovered several hundred million dollars for the Medicaid program from pharmaceutical companies, Big Pharma convinced the legislature to take away his power to hire outside lawyers without the legislature’s approval. http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=915585&n=HB799%20Act%20796

If the legislator’s will bow to Big Pharma’s will on this, what are the odds they’ll let the attorney general ever hire outside lawyers? And every year, proposals to restore some of the historic rights of Louisiana citizens fall on deaf ears at the capitol.

Louisiana is a conservative state. Its conservative voters elect fairly conservative judges, and they make up fairly conservative juries. If one of those judges or juries should run amuck, there are multi-parish appellate courts, and a state-wide supreme court, acting as backstops for Corporate America.

But that’s never enough. Corporate America still wants to take away your rights. Ironically, these corporations are the true socialists. The only thing they want privatized is profit. They want the costs and risks of production to be borne by society at large: their victims and, ultimately, the taxpayers.

 

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Pick your cliché:

Collective amnesia.

Circling the wagons.

Covering your backside.

Plausible deniability.

We’re all in this together.

Lying through your teeth.

The six members of the Legislative Conference Committee to a man have disavowed any knowledge as to which of them it was who introduced the amendment to Senate Bill 294 that gave State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson that $30,000 per year retirement increase that experts say may have been unconstitutional on six separate fronts.

Short version? Someone’s lying.

Remember the Seven Dwarfs of Big Tobacco? They’re the executives of the seven different tobacco companies who figurative locked arms as they formed a united front behind Philip Morris USA President and CEO William Campbell when he told a congressional committee back in 1994, “I believe nicotine is not addictive.”

Now you have the Six Mental Midgets (and yes, we are fully aware that is not politically correct) of the Louisiana House and Senate who individually, have each denied to C.B. Forgotston any culpability in adding the amendment to Sen. Jean-Paul Morrell’s bill that was intended to address disciplinary procedures against police officers under investigation and, Morrell says, was in no way intended to address pensions.

Forgotston refers to the amendment as the “bastard amendment” because “nobody claims to be the father. Some have suggested that the amendment came about through artificial insemination (while) others said Immaculate Conception,” he said. (We choose not to print Forgotston’s notion, though we have to admit he may well be closer to the truth than any of the other theory.)

State Treasurer John Kennedy, following a meeting of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) on Wednesday, said simply, “This amendment didn’t just fall from heaven.”

But if you accept the word of Sens. Morrell, Neil Riser (R-Columbia) and Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe), and Reps. Jeff Arnold (D-New Orleans), Walt Leger, III (D-New Orleans) and Bryan Adams (R-Gretna) at face value, you are left with few alternative explanations other than Forgotston’s R-rated suggestion.

The amendment, which Gov. Jindal quickly signed into law as Act 859, allows Edmonson to revoke his “irrevocable” decision made when he was a captain to enter the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) which allowed him to take more in salary but froze his retirement at the captain’s pay scale rate. By revoking that decision, he would allow his retirement benefits to be calculated at the higher rank of his current colonel’s pay, plus he would be allowed to add years of service and longevity pay. With 34 years of service, he would be qualified to retired at 100 percent of his $134,000 salary, an increase of $30,000 per year.

While each of the six Conference Committee members denies having offered up the amendment, Arnold would appear to be a prime suspect. It was he who spent all of 15 seconds explaining the amendment to the full House before its final passage. To hear his award-winning performance, click here: www.auctioneer-la.org/edmondson.mp3

But let’s not rule out the possibility that this amendment came straight from the Fourth Floor of the State Capitol. If Jindal wanted this (and it’s looking more and more as if that might be the case), it would be a simple matter of having one of his subordinates to insert the necessary language into the amendment for the governor, who can nevertheless maintain that “plausible deniability” as he scoots back to Iowa or D.C. (Think of the old TV thriller Mission Impossible and agent Phelps receiving his assignment on the self-destructing tape with his assignment ending with the disclaimer that the I.M. team will “disavow any knowledge” of his existence if he is captured.)

And let’s not forget Edmonson’s creative explanation. First, he says the amendment simply allows him to receive benefits to which he is fully entitled and then he denies asking for the special treatment. Ol’ Earl Long had a term for that kind doublespeak: “Catfish Mouth,” for the ability to “speak outta both sides of his mouth and whistle in the middle.”

First of all, we fail to comprehend how he feels he is “entitled” to the benefits considering the indisputable fact that he made the decision as a captain to enter DROP. There are scores of retired state troopers and thousands of retired state employees who would line up at the Capitol steps for the opportunity to change their minds on their DROP decisions of years ago. In fact, there have been several in recent years to attempt just that. Each one was rejected by the House and Senate retirement committees but that does make them one scintilla less deserving than Jindal’s shadow and former bodyguard for the LSU football coach.

And none of them—nay, not one—resides in a luxurious home with cooks, butlers and housekeepers—all provided at taxpayer expense.

“As someone who once worked for the legislature,” says Forgotston, “I find this entire episode very sad. It’s especially pathetic since the current legislators consider themselves as ‘reformers.’ If they want to see why Louisiana has a reputation for corruption, they should look into the mirror.”

He said all six members of the Conference Committee “claimed to be waiting on someone else to do something about the rip-off. The fact that none of the conferees claim the amendment serves to further destroy the integrity of the legislative process.  If the legislators want to attempt to mitigate the damage to the legislative process, there needs to be an internal investigation to determine how an amendment can get into legislation without any legislator offering it.”

He said that Arnold wrote him in an email that both he and Morrell had requested an attorney general’s opinion on the constitutionality of the amendment.

“I told Arnold the AG cannot render an opinion on the constitutionality of any legislation. The reason (is because) the AG is required by the Constitution to defend all acts of the legislature, regardless of constitutionality or how dumb the legislation is,” Forgotston said. “Therefore, it is a conflict of interest for (the attorney general) to rule on a matter in which he may be called on to defend in court.”

He said the retirement system’s board has a fiduciary obligation to protect its assets. “It’s time for them to do so,” he said.

“The only way to make sure this rip-off doesn’t go forward is for the (LSPRS) board to litigate the constitutionality of Act 859 of the 2014 Regular Session,” Forgotston said. “A first-year law student could win the case. Maybe the AG will hire Jimmy Faircloth to defend the state. That would make it the closest thing to sure winner as it gets in the courts.

“If you know any State Troopers please forward this information to them; they are obviously better at getting people to confess than I am. That said, I have to admit getting that the truth from legislators is no job for rookies.”

No wonder James Gill calls Forgotston the “King of the Subversive Bloggers.”

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“Japs need not apply.”

That was the remark Japanese-American Rodger Asai overheard on the telephone during a call to a representative of Imperial Fire & Casualty of Opelousas while trying unsuccessfully to resolve a dispute with his insurer after tenants destroyed his rent home in Livingston Parish.

Asai, whose father and two uncles were among those recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal for their military service during World War II even as his father’s own parents and other family members were being held in internment camps, has been fighting Imperial for more than a year now over damages inflicted by unauthorized individuals who had taken occupancy of the home from the original tenants unbeknownst to Asai.

The original tenants had moved from the home because they were unable to afford the $1500 per month rent, Asai was told when he came to Louisiana from his home in Oregon to check on the house because the original tenant had fallen behind on his rent.

Asai was forced to obtain a court-ordered eviction notice to get the previously unknown occupant, Michael Wayne Keller, to leave the property.

Among other things, Keller, a man who served 19 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for manslaughter and felony theft, apparently kept a pit bulldog in a room where it was forced to relieve itself on the floor. Elsewhere in the house, flooring was ripped up, holes torn or punched in walls, ceiling fans ripped down, coolant drained from the central air conditioning unit until the unit’s motor seized up, cabinet doors ripped off their hinges, and electrical wiring cut—all part of normal wear and tear, according to Imperial’s claims adjuster.

Imperial’s adjuster refused to acknowledge the damage was caused by vandalism, describing it instead as “wear and tear” and inept remodeling efforts.

That “wear and tear” cost Asai $45,680 to repair—with him doing much of the work himself—and his mortgage and other bills for the past year added another $60,000 to the tab, he says.

Imperial originally set the rebuild cost of the house at $270,000 but after the vandalism claim was filed, downgraded the rebuild cost to $150,000 and ended up paying Asai only $4,672.01, which included the $3,000 policy limit for stolen equipment. Net payment by Imperial for property damage? $1,672.01.

Even more insulting, the insurance company initially paid only $672.06—and even that payment came with 46 cents postage due.

And the Louisiana Department of Insurance, which likes to boast that it serves the public, has been all but invisible.

http://ldi.louisiana.gov/consumers/miscellaneous_pubs.html

http://ldi.louisiana.gov/consumers/misc_pubs/HowToFileAnInsuranceComplaint.pdf

But then Imperial did make a point of spreading around more than $50,000 in campaign contributions to several politicians, including Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, Gov. Bobby Jindal and key legislators.

The trend in insurance companies’ tactic to delay and deny claims has its roots in a 1992 decision by Allstate Insurance to retain the services of McKenzie and Co. to revamp its business model that tilted the scales from favoring the policy holder to favoring the stockholder. From 1996, the year the McKenzie plan was fully implemented, until 2006, Allstate’s operating income jumped from $820 million to $27.4 billion, a 3,335 percent increase.

In 2004, the casualty insurance industry as a whole had total assets of $412.6 billion. In 2007, two years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when claims should have held down profits, the industry’s total assets totaled $1.18 trillion, or more than a third of the entire federal budget for that year.

What does Asai’s fight with Imperial have to do with Allstate and McKenzie?

Plenty.

When other insurance companies, beginning with State Farm, Liberty Mutual, Farm Bureau, etc., saw the results to Allstate’s bottom line after implementation of the McKenzie plan, they all joined in lock step to adopt the same methods of dealing with claims: delay, deny, litigate.

The plan was revealed in a single slide (among some 12,500 slides obtained by New Mexico attorney David Berardinelli) developed by McKenzie which, among other things, listed “redefinition of claims benefits and payment approach” as its criteria to boosting insurance companies’ profits.

The next step was the development of a software program that could be tweaked by insurance managers to reflect the desired percentage reduction in claim payments in order to keep the bottom line healthy.

Former Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti filed lawsuits against Allstate, State Farm, Allstate, and three other companies in 2007, claiming the insurers were skewing home repair estimates with programs like Xactimate and IntegriClaim, in order to boost profits. Insurers, he said, use the programs to deliberate underestimate building and rebuilding claims.

http://blog.nola.com/times-picayune/2007/11/attorney_general_files_lawsuit.html

http://www.farmersinsurancegroupsucks.com/lawsuit/louisiana_state_v_farmers_insurance.pdf

The lawsuit was dismissed the following year.

http://www.insurancejournal.com/magazines/features/2009/01/11/157520.htm

The business plan originated by McKenzie reaped huge rewards in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita as unpaid or underpaid homeowners claims left entire neighborhoods ravaged and rotting.

If, for example, an Allstate adjuster found that wind caused damage, Allstate would have to pay the claim. If, however, the adjuster could attribute the damage to flooding, then the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), underwritten by American taxpayers, would have to foot the bill.

So, by changing the engineering reports, Berardinelli said, Allstate was able to deny claims altogether when the policyholder had no flood coverage.

Moreover, Allstate also devised two different formulae for pricing damage repair costs, thanks to an arrangement the company had with NFIP which paid Allstate fees for handling flood claims. That fee depended on the gross amount of the claim.

Ergo, if Allstate wound up on the hook for wind damage, it set the payment under the customer’s homeowner policy for, say, removing and replacing drywall at 76 cents per square foot.

If, however, the damage was attributed to flood waters and the taxpayers picked up the tab, the price was set at $3.31 per square foot. Allstate wins either way—by keeping claims costs down on wind damage and collecting inflated costs on taxpayer-financed flood damage repair.

So, now, we come to the inspection report by Imperial Fire & Casualty’s contract adjuster Paul A. Scull of Alexandria.

Scull, who works for American Delta Insurance (and apparently a second independent adjusting firm, according to records provided by the Secretary of State’s office), and whose previous experience was that of owner of a limousine service in Alexandria, attributed the torn up wooden parquet flooring and carpeting to shoddy remodeling efforts and added, “It is not reasonable to believe that someone intentionally removed or broke one or two ceiling fan blades, or precariously removed the ceiling fans or fixtures with the intent to harm someone or damage or destroy.”

Apparently Scull has never visited rent homes where tenants went on a destructive tear on the way out the door. There was one home in Denham Springs several years ago—what had been a reasonably upscale home—in which the tenants had ripped out all the electrical wiring, torn down all the ceiling fans and light fixtures, destroyed appliances and had thrown it all, along with assorted pieces of furniture, into the backyard swimming pool.

But that was most probably normal wear and tear.

As for the “Japs need not apply” comment overheard by Asai in his call to Imperial claims representative Billy Durel (and to be fair, Asai said he is not sure if the comment was made by Durel or someone in his office), we would most likely attribute that to pure bigotry.

Bigotry and ignorance.

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