In recent years, workers' compensation insurance administrators have jumped on the anti-fraud bandwagon and mounted aggressive campaigns to cut costs by uncovering fraudulent claims. The downside to this action is that truly injured employees can be subjected to years of harassment.
One such worker seems to be an Atascadero School District employee who, according to workers' compensation claim medical reports, became mentally ill as a result of extensive surveillance by investigators hired by the district's workers' compensation program. The injured worker claimed he had been spied on for years, but was told by claims administrators that his suspicions were only in his mind. A few months ago, attorney Dan O'Neill uncovered documents detailing the alleged harassment.
O'Neill is now planning to file a civil suit claiming emotional distress on behalf of his client against the school district in response to the district's rejection of a claim he filed a few months ago.
In 1997 after 17 years with Atascadero schools John (not his real name) injured his foot after a fall from a ladder while on the job, O'Neill said.
The case was allegedly assigned by the district to the Workers' Compensation Fraud Task Force, and surveillance began. District officials informed John and his attorney that shortly after his fall they had secretly videotaped him for two weeks, but the surveillance had ended, John said.
However, John continued to believe that he was spied on constantly.
"I was being followed all the time," John said of the years between 1997 and 2000. "At Home Depot, while I put things in the car, a guy was crouching down, watching me load the car. After I pulled away, he took a video camera off the roof of another car. It happens all the time. It's just what I have to put up with. It has made my life hell."
John voiced his concerns to his workers' compensation attorney at the time, who assured him he wasn't under investigation.
"Insofar as I am able to determine, there is no indication of any fraud in your case," Attorney Ronald Gould wrote in a letter dated Oct. 20, 1997. "I would suggest that you just go ahead with the medical appointments, allow the doctor to do surgery, and stop looking for problems where they do not exist."
However, John seems to have been secretly trailed on and off between 1997 and the fall of 2000, according to the district's School Insurance Program for Employees (SIPE) records, O'Neill said.
In 1998, John again accused the school district and SIPE of having him followed, an allegation that they reportedly denied.
Numerous district officials contacted by New Times have either failed to return phone calls or refused to comment due to pending litigation. Atascadero Unified School District Superintendent John Rogers didn't respond to requests for comment, and SIPE General Manager Mike McGuire declined comment.
During the summer of 1999, John continued to claim that he was being followed, and was admitted into a mental ward. His wife of 10 years began to doubt his sanity.
"After the district denied having him followed, I started to feel that he was totally delusional," John's wife said. "They said they weren't following him. He said they were lying. We argued about it and ended up in marriage counseling."
In response to John's alleged delusions, his doctor prescribed eight months of electric-shock therapy. At his second deposition in 2000, John could no longer remember his previous allegations and claimed to have severe memory loss as a result of the shock treatments. Claim records state that John is 100-percent psychotically disabled.
In June 2000, according to claim records, Atascadero School District Administrative Assistant Alice Columbo now Alice Soto ordered more surveillance after a run-in with John in which she thought he didn't look "almost catatonic." Soto declined to comment.
"The way he was followed, even though he was suffering mentally, caused my husband severe mental damage," John's wife said. "He was so severely ill that I thought I lost him. Through being followed, he became mentally ill."
"The predominant cause of the applicant's psychiatric disorder is due to the surveillance he underwent as part of the workers' compensation process," a psychiatrist opined in an October 2000 claim document.
The cost of planning and implementing John's surveillance was subtracted from funds earmarked for education, according to the district.
Earlier this summer, in a hearing before the California Division of Workers' Compensation, injured workers testified about the severe and negative impacts they face from investigation-related bureaucracy. Workers requested reform in a system that they claim is biased toward employers and insurance companies.