'He's a fool': Arbitrator critiqued another hearing officer, offered advice to lawyers in injury cases, e-mails show

News-DemocratFebruary 13, 2011 

In an e-mail to a Belleville lawyer representing a client in a pending injury case assigned to another workers' compensation hearing officer, Jennifer Teague provided legal guidance and confided that her bosses considered her fellow arbitrator a "fool."

That e-mail message is one of thousands obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat under the Freedom of Information Act that provided a look at the inner workings of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, which is the subject of at least three state investigations concerning repetitive trauma claims, including more than 200 from the Menard Correctional Center.

Teague, of Shiloh, reviewed the attorney's proposed motion for a continuance in an injury case before it was officially presented in the other arbitrator's court, according to an e-mail. She also commented in the e-mail about how to handle the other arbitrator -- Andrew Nalefski -- who then presided in Collinsville.

"I agree with your position and see your frustration. Too bad it's not mine. I think the letter is perfect. Not stirring the pot with Andy is good," Teague advised in the June 23 electronic message, which added, "The Commission thinks he is a fool though. ..."

Neither Nalefski nor Teague could be reached for comment.

The "commission" refers to a nine-member panel of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission. Commissioners, who are appointed by the governor, oversee the state's 32 hearing officers. The hearing officers or arbitrators are entrusted to rule fairly on work place injury claims that annually lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in private and public workplace injury settlements.

Thousands of e-mails from Teague's computer and those of Nalefski and arbitrator John Dibble were reviewed. Teague and Nalefski are attorneys.

Many of Teague's messages concerned private issues. Under state law, messages on a state employee's state-owned computer could be made public.

Workers' comp arbitrators and all Illinois elected and appointed judges, are bound by the Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct. The code's preamble states that all who fall under its provisions "must respect and honor the judicial office."

Canon 3 prohibits "ex parte" communications, or hearing from one lawyer or one side only in any pending case including one that is not before a particular arbitrator, unless both sides are informed of what was said. Exceptions can include routine scheduling matters.

Judges and arbitrators also are prohibited by the code of undermining the independence of the court by giving legal advice to assist one side or the other.

Teague, 37, gave advice and conducted legal research for private attorneys who specialized in workers' comp cases, the e-mails showed. It could not be determined whether any of these cases were before Teague.

The e-mails also show that Teague, who is divorced, engaged in numerous, casual conversations with female private attorneys and workers' compensation commission staffers ranging from where to take a vacation to boyfriends and dating.

The News-Democrat's interest in the repetitive trauma claims, including one filed by Teague and pending for an injury she claimed is related to the demands of her $115,800 per year arbitrator's job, drew a number of recent e-mails.

On Dec. 20, while two News-Democrat reporters were checking on repetitive trauma cases on the public computer at the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission office in Collinsville, commission lawyer Amber Cameron e-mailed Teague: "Two reporters are asking questions."

Teague replied, "What do they want to know?" and then, after Cameron sent another message five minutes later, Teague replied, "Thanks for the heads up."

The next day, Cameron again e-mailed Teague, Nalefski and Dibble, "They are back again. Same ones."

Cameron declined to comment for this article.

Nalefski also was e-mailed by Cameron about the reporters.

"I hope they don't know of Teague's claim," he responded.

Nalefski later sent a message to another arbitrator that stated "These two reporters have been running a front page witch hunt on (Workers' Comp). ... They sit for hours at the public computer. ... "

When e-mailed one of the News-Democrat stories, Dibble gave a one-word reply, "Jerks."

Dibble was contacted Oct. 29 through an e-mail sent by attorney Thomas Rich of Fairview Heights about obtaining theater tickets for Dibble's wife.

Dibble has ruled in favor of more than 125 Menard Correctional Center guards and employees who hired Rich to obtain injury settlements for repetitive trauma ranging from about $15,000 to more than $150,000. In October, Dibble received $48,790 in his own settlement he said stemmed from when he fell on steps at the commission hearing site in Herrin on Nov. 12, 2009, causing him to develop an unusual condition called, "post traumatic carpal tunnel syndrome."

"Your bride called this a.m. and asked to purchase tickets to South Pacific at the Fox for the matinee show. ... I tried to leave message on her cell phone ... think I succeeded ... but if not, please tell her no problem," Rich wrote to Dibble via e-mail.

Rich said he often purchases blocks of tickets to sports and entertainment events to give or sell to friends and clients.

"It was nothing of monetary value," Rich told the News-Democrat. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with an attorney selling tickets to a judge's wife at face value. The second someone tells me there is, I will stop immediately."

During a brief telephone conversation last week with a News-Democrat reporter, Dibble was told about Rich's e-mail concerning tickets to the musical "South Pacific" and was told a reporter had other questions about other e-mails. He said he would call the reporter back but did not, and could not later be reached.

Dibble's e-mail also included a message from Belleville-based attorney Andy Keefe that stated, "John, Please tell the guy you know from Chicago who got the speeding ticket in Madison County that we signed off on a 30-day supervision and $100 fine. Tell him that (a Madison County assistant state's attorney) told him to slow down because he's really going to lay down the law next time. Thanks."

Jim Keefe, who is Andy Keefe's father and head of the workers' compensation law firm where his son works, said Dibble asked him whether he could handle a ticket for a friend. Jim Keefe said he didn't get payment from Dibble or the man who got the ticket.

"I usually don't," Jim Keefe said. "It's not part of my usual business. I don't charge anybody for traffic tickets."

In another e-mail to Dibble from July 12, the arbitrator received a message from a large St. Louis law firm regarding one of its attorneys.

"I heard you needed (attorney's name) to fix the computer. We will be sending you a bill for her services or would you prefer I just send it to the Chairman?" Dibble's response could not be found among the e-mails.

The attorney mentioned in this e-mail as fixing a computer is the same person who, in an e-mail to Teague on May 12, asked, "What do you think bilateral thoracic outlet syndrome is worth?"

Teague replied four minutes later at 1:16 p.m., "40 to 50 MAW," meaning 40 percent to 50 percent "man as a whole," a reference to an injury that affects a person's entire body. Teague also said, "let me do a little checking ... give me 10."

The e-mails also included a May 13 message from Don Williams of Central Management Services, the agency that processes workers' compensation settlements and sends them on to the comptroller's office where a check is issued.

Williams asked Kelly Culpepper, the human resources manager for the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, why he had not received several necessary forms that needed to be completed by Dibble before Dibble's injury settlement could be approved. The forms included a "witness statement."

Culpper sent Williams' message to Dibble and he responded the next day that he would ensure that the forms were completed except for the witness report.

"As far as I am aware, there were no witnesses to this accident," Dibble responded about his fall on a hearing office's steps in November 2009.

Dibble received a check for $48,790 paid Oct. 8, or about 116 days after Williams asked about the forms. The money came from the state's general revenue fund, which is used for payment because Illinois is self-insured. The normal wait for a check to a state employee from date of settlement is 180 days, according to commission regulations.

Reporters who had heard of the payment to Dibble were unable to find any record of it in January. Commission Chairman Mitch Weisz has said no file could be found and the case did not have an official number assigned to it until recently.

However, Weisz was able to find a copy of the contract settlement but wouldn't say how he got it. It provided basic information although the usual case file, which would contain medical records, is still missing.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 239-2625. Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 239-2570.

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