Metro-East News

Boating prison guard receives $48,000 workers’ compensation award

Exterior of Vienna Correctional Center, located in Johnson County.
Exterior of Vienna Correctional Center, located in Johnson County.

An Illinois Department of Corrections guard who became the target of a fraud investigation after he participated in a fishing tournament while out on total disability collected $48,000 tax-free for his injury.

Former IDOC Director Salvador Godinez launched the investigation after pictures surfaced last year of Lance Fancher out on a boat while he was being paid while on disability. Fancher is back on the job, earning $66,000 annually working as a guard at the Vienna Correctional Center in Southern Illinois.

At the time, Godinez said his administration had “absolutely zero tolerance for employee misconduct of any type.” The corrections department won’t say anything about the investigation, even whether it is ongoing.

The investigation was ordered because at the time of the fishing contest, Fancher was out of work on temporary total disability collecting his full salary under a regulation called “extended benefits,” which allows a corrections officer who has been injured by an inmate to recuperate without losing pay.

Fancher spent 352 days off work, but on full pay, after stating he was incapable of working following a fight in October 2013. The fight was between inmates. Fancher and other guards tried to intervene. An emergency room exam of Fancher showed no injuries at the time, according to a physician’s report.

Last month, his claim for injuries he said he got breaking up the inmate fight was settled for $48,000 tax-free, minus 15 percent to his Swansea lawyer Tom Rich. Fancher previously requested that he not be contacted by the News-Democrat. It was his fifth workers’ compensation.

Prison system spokeswoman Nicole Wilson would not say whether the department’s investigation cleared Fancher of wrongdoing. She also declined to answer questions about whether the investigation was completed.

“I cannot provide details about any investigation concerning Mr. Fancher,” she said.

But Fancher lost two earlier claims — both for repetitive trauma injuries — after hearings in September where, despite the testimony of physicians, the hearing officer denied any benefits, stating that information provided to the medical experts by Fancher and a witness was not accurate, according to a report on the decisions.

“There were two consolidated cases where Mr. Fancher sought to recover for repetitive motion injuries to his wrist and elbow as the result of his work,” Ann Spillane, chief of staff for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said.

“We vigorously defended those cases and ultimately at the arbitrator (hearing officer) level we succeeded in defending them because the arbitrator raised questions whether the doctors had a complete picture of Mr. Fancher’s work history,” Spillane said, “whether they had a complete and accurate picture of his repetitive motions based on the fact that they did not seem completely aware that he had changed his job duties many times during the course of his employment with IDOC.”

We vigorously defended those cases and ultimately at the arbitrator (hearing officer) level we succeeded in defending them because the arbitrator raised questions whether the doctors had a complete picture of Mr. Fancher’s work history.

Ann Spillane, chief of staff for Attorney General Lisa Madigan

Spillane said for a shoulder injury, Fancher was examined by a doctor for the attorney general’s office, who found that the guard needed surgery.

According to data supplied last year by the department, the total of worker’s compensation awards, payment of medical bills and time off pay for Fancher before this latest payment was $135,794. With the most recent award, the total for Fancher is $183,794, not counting medical bills, which were unavailable, associated with his recent surgery to repair a shoulder injury.

According to the hearing officer’s decision for the two combined previous cases that were denied, Fancher claimed damage to his wrist and elbow based on such duties as “turning keys, writing reports and driving.”

Fancher testified that his job consists primarily of “turning keys to doors,” and applying “handcuffs, waist chains, leg restraints, (operating) buttons, doors and cells and writing.” He complained of “hands and wrist numb. Elbow numb. Comes and goes.”

The doctors who testified that Fancher’s injuries were caused or aggravated by his work and were thus compensable under Illinois law, included Dr. George Paletta, former medical director for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.

During the hearing, Fancher testified that since his shoulder surgery, “He continues to fish but finds that he has to change hands a lot,” according to testimony. “Pictures submitted by (Fancher) show him fishing and hunting. He testified that his loss of strength has forced him to change the type of bow he uses.”

Despite these reported weaknesses, Hearing Officer Nancy Lindsay sided with the attorney general and found that because Fancher had switched his prison job duties so many times and he had performed nearly every task at the prison, he wasn’t in any one job long enough to be injured through repetitive trauma.

“Petitioner has failed to prove to a medical and surgical certainty via expert testimony that he suffered accidental injuries with a causal link to his duties as a correctional officer,” Lindsay’s findings stated.

Referring to Dr. Paletta, Lindsay wrote the physician’s opinions were “based upon a job history and understanding of duties that were not based on full knowledge of the totality of (Fancher’s) job assignments and duties.”

Beginning in late 2010, the BND reported that guards at Menard Correctional Center were awarded more than $20 million in workers’ compensation awards. The guards claimed they sustained wrist and elbow injuries from turning keys and operating locking mechanisms.

Spillane said workers’ compensation hearing officers have increasingly questioned whether they were getting accurate information that turning locks were the cause of repetitive trauma injuries.

Limited reforms took place after extensive reporting in the BND revealed that more than 200 guards at Menard Correctional Center made claims and underwent wrist and elbow surgery for essentially turning keys. The awards ranged from $20,000 to $80,000 or more. The stories also led to the dismissal of several hearing officers who themselves had claimed repetitive trauma injuries.

The denial of Fancher’s two earlier claims has been appealed to the Workers Compensation Commission.

George Pawlaczyk: 618-239-2625, @gapawlaczyk

Beth Hundsdorfer: 618-239-2570, @bhundsdorfer