Last week marked the official final days of Robert Gilliland’s Chairmanship of the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission. It passed largely without notation or proclamation. For a select few people that was probably a good thing. For most of us, however, it is an event worthy of review, reflection and remembrance, as his service to the workers’ compensation industry should not go unnoticed. The man stood his ground on principle, and was torpedoed for his efforts. We can learn something from the fate of Bob Gilliland.
Appointed Chair of the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission effective June 1, 2015, Mr. Gilliland was responsible for steering the newly formed entity to a successful launch. By many accounts, he performed his civic responsibilities with candor and competence. His new commission, the product of massive workers’ compensation reforms in the state, was navigating uncharted waters as it took shape and established procedures. Bob was front and center in this process, and likely would’ve been able to continue in his appointed position for years to come; if it wasn’t for the pesky Vasquez case.
Vasquez vs. Dillard’s was a case involving allegations of denied benefits for an injured worker, under the newly minted Opt Out plan that was created through the same reforms that established Gilliland’s commission. A twisting trail of court actions, including a rejection of the case by Federal courts, landed the Vasquez appeal before the 3 Commissioners for the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission. Using elements of the reform laws that declared the Commission a “court of competent jurisdiction”, the 3-panel group, led by Gilliland, declared the states Opt Out legislation “unconstitutional and unenforceable”.
Much debate ensued in the following days about the legitimacy of the Commission’s decision. Gilliland took heat from some with accusations that he had overstepped his authority. It was said that an administrative body did not have the ability to determine constitutional issues. He was broadly criticized in the state and elsewhere for this decision. Opt Out proponents insisted Vasquez was a minor case that was overblown by the Commission. However, just two months later, in April, 2016, the Oklahoma Supreme Court put the matter to rest by confirming the WCC’s status as a court of competent jurisdiction, and upholding the decision issued by the Commission.
Opt Out in Oklahoma was dead, and Governor Mary Fallin was reportedly none too happy about it.
It wasn’t over for Robert Gilliland. It was reported in October of 2016 that Governor Fallin had, through an intermediary, demanded Chairman Gilliland’s resignation. He refused, writing in response that he had “decided it is in the best interest of the injured workers, employers, insurance carriers, employees of the Commission and the people of the State of Oklahoma that I remain at the Commission.”
Atta boy, Bobbo. Way to stick to your guns while sticking it to the Governor.
I said at the time that the Vasquez decision was well written and properly reasoned. Having been a public critic of the Opt Out system and having predicted its demise along these very lines probably skewed my opinion a bit, but I wrote after the fact that the Commission “did a bang up job with their decision and justification for same”. I was very pleased that the Supreme Court agreed with them (and by extension of course, with me).
Bob Gilliland was simply the messenger, and he was shot by the Governor for his efforts. She may not have secured his early resignation, but to the surprise of no one, she did not reappoint him when his term expired. He angered a powerful political class in the name of doing what was right, rather than that which was expedient. He clearly maintained the strength of his convictions, and in my opinion stood strong till the bitter end.
And when good guys stand up on principle, we all win from the effort, even if they get shot down in the process.
Goodbye, Mr. Gilliland, and thank you. Your efforts and commitment to both fairness and our industry will not be forgotten. We wish you well in your future endeavors.