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Time-Barred LHWCA Defense Inapplicable to Kosovo Shooting Victim

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 09, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We admit up front that one reason we are writing about this Second Circuit Court of Appeals case is that it includes a fleeting reference to a character named Captain Courage(!).

Elizabeth Mechler was a special enforcement officer for the Kansas Department of Corrections ("DOC") from 1993-2004. Her work required Mechler to carry a firearm. In March 2004, Mechler began a three year contract with Dyncorp, which operates overseas prisons for the United States government. Mechler was assigned to Kosovo, where, on her first day on the job, she and five other Dyncorp employees were shot by a Jordanian soldier working for the United Nations. Three of the victims died.

After treatment at a military hospital, Mechler returned to work two days after the attack. Because of her physical injuries Dyncorp assigned Mechler to light duty, but Mechler struggled to complete her 8-12 hour shifts. Mechler began attending bi-monthly counseling sessions with an army psychologist, Captain Cora Courage (Captain Courage!).

At the time, Mechler was experiencing trouble sleeping, intrusive thoughts, and anxiety. Mechler also met with several lawyer-and-Dyncorp-retained mental health professionals starting around August 2004, but there is no evidence in the record that any of the diagnoses were communicated to Mechler.

On April 17, 2005, Mechler was informed that she would be sent home for her mental well-being. Mechler returned to work at the Kansas DOC, but she was prevented from carrying a firearm because, according to Mechler, Kansas DOC believed she was mentally unfit to carry a weapon after being shot in Kosovo. Kansas DOC assigned her to a desk job that paid less than what she made as a special enforcement officer.

In 2006, Mechler filed a Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) benefits claim to cover the difference in salary between her former and current jobs at the Kansas DOC, asserting that the demotion was caused by her ongoing psychological problems.

An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Mechler's claim was time barred because she should have been aware that her injuries would likely result in an impairment of her earning capacity after meeting with one of the retained doctors in 2004. The Benefits Review Board (BRB) reversed the ALJ's decision, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the BRB's decision.

The court found the Mechler was entitled to benefits because she did not have enough information--either from Dyncorp, her healthcare providers, or other sources--to realize more than one year before she filed her claims that her psychological problems would result in a permanent loss in earning capacity.

What does this mean for your practice? An employer must produce "substantial evidence" of untimeliness to raise a statute of limitations defense under the LHWCA. Here, the court determined that meeting with three mental health professionals was not "substantial evidence." Don't decline a client simply because he met with doctors more than a year before filing an LHWCA claim; the critical date is when the client reasonably should have known of impairment.

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