State investigates workers' comp claim filed by prison guard

News-DemocratApril 26, 2014 

Illinois prison guard Lance Fancher filed four claims for on-the-job injury-related benefits since 2008 for which the state has paid $135,795 in medical bills, temporary disability pay and a settlement.

Three of these cases filed with the state Workers' Compensation Commission are pending and could result in additional tax-free settlements.

But it was a fifth claim Fancher filed with the commission in December that prompted the Illinois Department of Corrections to launch an investigation into possible misconduct. The latest benefits application is in connection with an Oct. 13 fight among inmates that Fancher and other guards attempted to stop.

"We recently began a new investigation for possible misconduct in this entire matter and, further, we support the recent decision of the state of Illinois workers' compensation claims adjuster to launch a separate investigation for possible misconduct, now also underway," IDOC spokesman Tom Shaer said in a written statement Thursday.

Contacted by telephone, Fancher said, "I'd love to talk to you, but my lawyer told me not to talk about my case."

His attorney, Tom Rich, of Fairview Heights, could not be reached for comment.

The corrections department began its investigation in the past week after receiving questions from the News-Democrat about Fancher's most recent workers' comp claim.

Anjali Julka, spokeswoman for the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, said "the (commission) will assist IDOC during any inquiry or investigation."

Shaer said two separate medical examinations -- one at the Big Muddy River Correctional Center in Ina, in Jefferson County, and another at a private hospital -- shortly after the altercation involving inmates showed no injuries to Fancher. Shaer said he based his statement on information provided by medical personnel.

Fancher, 33, of DuQoin, has been off work since October except for three days he worked shortly after the altercation and has been paid 100 percent of his salary, about $66,000 a year, under an "extended benefits" provision that covers injuries to employees by inmates or in connection with controlling inmates.

Fancher is an avid hunter and competitive bass fisherman who has won awards in local tournaments. Pictures of him holding large bass appear on various websites. He also posted a photo of himself on Nov. 18 posing in camouflage with a 10-point deer taken with a compound bow.

When asked about his outdoor pursuits, he said the deer was actually killed in 2011, and that he does not currently possess a hunting or fishing license. He declined further comment.

Gene Keefe, a Chicago attorney who specializes in defending against workers' compensation claims in the private sector, said the state isn't trying to find employees jobs that can accommodate their injury, opting instead to pay benefits for life.

"That's the part that makes me bananas. They could assign these people to different state jobs, fill the positions and get these people back to work. It's the taxpayers who suffer," Keefe said. "It's the quiet scandal that no one knows about."

Fancher's latest application for disability benefits lists injuries to: "Head. Neck. Back. Right shoulder. Right Knee. Body as a whole."

The term "body as a whole," according to the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act, can cover any type of disability found to impair the overall function of a human being. Many such claims involve back injuries, according to medical websites, and can result in disability payments for life.

Fancher's earlier injuries, according to his disability applications, were listed as "lower extremities, right -- multiple parts -- right knee -- left arm and elbow."

Rich, Fancher's lawyer, was the primary attorney handling hundreds of repetitive trauma workers' compensation disability cases filed by guards at the Menard Correctional Center in Chester. The guards claimed they were injured by turning keys on prison cell doors and operating locking mechanisms.

In a series of stories, the News-Democrat reported that more than $10 million in tax-free settlements were paid mostly for carpal tunnel syndrome complaints awarded after minor corrective surgery. The settlements ranged from about $20,000 to $80,000.

The reporting prompted a federal criminal investigation and the removal of a dozen workers' compensation hearing judges. While no one was charged with a crime, hearings in the state legislature resulted in revisions of law that capped repetitive trauma awards and required closer scrutiny of worker's comp claims.

In a written statement about Fancher's claim, Shaer said, "While the Illinois Department of Corrections respects procedures for claims, Director Salvador A. Godinez and his team have absolutely zero tolerance for employee misconduct of any type."

The department, Shaer said, received information from the medical unit at Big Muddy that Fancher showed no signs of injuries when examined after the incident where guards attempted to stop inmates from fighting among themselves.

Shaer said that after Fancher was examined by medical staff at the prison, he requested to be taken by ambulance to Good Samaritan Hospital in Mount Vernon, where he was once again examined by doctors.

"The (Good Samaritan) hospital staff reported their findings of no visible injuries and no injuries shown by tests, and further state that Officer Fancher verbally reported soreness in his joints and in two other areas," Shaer said.

A guard who tried to stop the melee, who was not identified, was examined at another hospital after being driven there by a relative, and was found to have sustained "minor injuries." He returned to work about a week later, Shaer said.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the prison system union, Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said, "While work in corrections is extremely dangerous and employees are too frequently injured in the line of duty, we know nothing of the specifics of this situation."

Shaer said guards "were not attacked by inmates, but the inmates continued fighting that resulted in many punches being thrown, inmate-on-inmate, as the officers attempted to break up the fight. ... Any physical contact with the officers was a result of the inmate-on-inmate fight and the attempt to stop it."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 618-239-2625. Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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