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State’s highest court backs Watertown man’s request for compensation hearing

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The state’s highest court has ruled that an Alford plea entered by a Watertown man in a criminal proceeding cannot unilaterally be used against him in other administrative proceedings.

The ruling helps David W. Howard in his continuing bid to receive workers’ compensation benefits despite a conviction for insurance fraud.

The issue arose when Mr. Howard was denied a hearing into whether he should receive benefits stemming from a back injury he suffered while working in 2003 at the now-closed Stature Electric Inc. He had applied for and received benefits, but the state Insurance Fund, which provides workers’ compensation benefits, sought to stop the payments after Mr. Howard pleaded guilty in 2006 to fourth-degree insurance fraud after being accused of receiving benefits while continuing to work somewhere else.

The Insurance Fund reasoned that if Mr. Howard had been convicted of a crime related to the matter, that was adequate proof that he no longer should be entitled to benefits. He requested a hearing on the matter and a workers’ compensation law judge found that because Mr. Howard had entered his guilty plea using an Alford plea, the matter was not fully resolved in criminal court.

In entering an Alford plea, a criminal defendant does not admit any wrongdoing, but pleads guilty to avoid the possibility of being convicted of a more serious offense at trial. Following the law judge’s determination that Mr. Howard was entitled to a hearing, the Insurance Fund sought a review of the decision. A workers’ compensation board modified the decision, giving “preclusive effect” to his guilty plea, meaning it could be used in workers’ compensation proceedings as proof that he was not entitled to benefits.

Mr. Howard appealed the decision to the state Appellate Division, Fourth Department, which reversed the decision and sent it back to the workers’ compensation board for further proceedings consistent with its ruling that the criminal conviction could not automatically be considered proof that Mr. Howard should have his benefits halted. The state Insurance Fund appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which, in a decision issued Thursday, upheld the Fourth Department’s decision.

The highest court ruled that, because Mr. Howard did not admit any wrongdoing in the criminal case, “it is impossible to conclude that the conviction was based upon the same circumstances alleged to be fraudulent in the workers’ compensation proceeding.” It ruled that the Insurance Fund did not meet its burden of proving that the issues in both matters were identical.

“As a result, the plea did not prohibit (Mr. Howard) from challenging the workers’ compensation violation alleged,” justices wrote in their decision.

Consistent with the Fourth Department ruling, Mr. Howard is entitled to a hearing on the matter, according to the Court of Appeals.

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