It is a familiar story in New Jersey: immediately after Melard Manufacturing Corporation closed its Passaic plant, laying off 111 workers, 84 of the former employees promptly filed workers’ compensation claims alleging a variety of “occupational” maladies. (Melard, which manufactured plastic bathroom parts and packaged other items, laid off the workers in 2002.) The problem: the employees were represented by a single law firm, which filed identical complaints for each former employee, changing only the personally-identifying information on each court pleading. Melard filed a complaint in federal Court alleging Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) violations by the employees and their lawyers – alleging that “fraudulent claims were being filed” and that “workers were being coached.” Melard claims that the workers gave false complaints to their physicians and that the lawyers who filed the claims solicited and developed the complaints. Melard argued that none of their workers ever filed a claim for pulmonary-related complaints before the plant closed and no worker claimed retaliation for filing a claim. Melard allegedly was told of this wrong-doing by a former employee who came forward.
The law firm that filed to complaints quietly settled with Melard (Ginarte, O’Dwyer, Winograd & Laracuente) for an ‘undisclosed’ sum. That left the federal lawsuit pending against the 84 factory workers who filed the allegedly fraudulent claims. On February 21, 2006, a default judgment was obtained against the workers, who did not appear or defend the case on their own behalf.
Three weeks later, Federal (U.S. District) Judge Stanley Chesler entered a judgment of $2,264,691 against the workers (of which $350,678 was attorneys’ fees for Melard’s lawyers).
The saga as it stands now? The lawyers who brought the claims settled their portion of the case and moved on. The 84 workers were not so lucky. The federal judgment against them, likely uncollectable, stands.
More interesting is the fate of the two former-employees who continued to pursue their workers’ compensation claims against Melard (and were provided a court-appointed attorney, Gregory Jachts, Esq.). Two of those claimant received awards of compensation after trial (Judge Beverly Karch, Presiding Judge of Comepnsation, Paterson). In other words, the Compensation Judge found that the claimants had compensable injuries. Nonetheless, under the terms of the RICO judgment, the awards obtained by the employee were the results of a tainted claim, and the employees who recovered owe Melard triple their award!
We will continue to follow this story as it develops.