NCAJ Attorneys Protect Your Rights: April 2019 edition

robby jessup  by Robby Jessup

NCAJ attorneys & other NCAJ legal professionals protect the citizens of North Carolina who have been harmed. For a snapshot of their work, read NCAJ’s April 2019 Verdicts, Settlements and Dispositions column, linked below.

Congratulations to all attorneys highlighted in the column:  Ann Groninger and Valerie Johnson of Copeley Johnson & Groninger PLLC; Gabriel Snyder and Barry Snyder of Snyder Law; Winslow Taylor of Taylor & Taylor Attorneys at Law, PLLC; Joan Davis and Douglas Noreen of Howard StallingsLakota Denton of Lakota R. Denton, P.A.;  Guy Crabtree of Crabtree Carpenter, PLLCLennie Jernigan and Kristi Thompson of Jernigan Law; Douglas Maynard, Jr. of Maynard & Harris, PLLC; James Roane of Roane LawRichard Watson of Richard Watson Law, PLLC; Bill Gardo of Gardo Law; and Robby Jessup of Howard Stallings.

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NCAJ Convention 2019: Revitalizing+ Retooling Our Community

Adrienne S. Blocker-Education VP - crop for wordpress  by Adrienne Blocker, Convention Co-Chair

Convention Co-Chair Darrin Jordan of Whitley, Jordan & Inge, P.A. and I look forward to welcoming you to NCAJ’s Annual Convention which runs from June 20 – 23, 2019 at the Hotel Ballast in Wilmington, NC.


A Special Note from NCAJ Executive Director Kim Crouch

Online Registration is Open
Registration is now available at  Register by May 10 and save!  Online registration closes June 12 and on-site registration opens June 20.

Allen A. Bailey Professional Development Fellowship
NCAJ lawyer members licensed between 1 and 10 years can apply for the Allen A. Bailey Professional Development fellowship to attend NCAJ’s 2019 Convention.  Fellowship covers one Convention registration & hotel accommodations. Apply before May 12 at

Opportunity to Exhibit or Sponsor an Event
Exhibit or sponsor an event at NCAJ’s Annual Convention if you’re looking for a great way to promote your company, reinforce brand loyalty, increase visibility and boost your market share with trial lawyers!

What’s New this Year at Convention 2019!

  • First-Time Attendees Meet & Greet on Thursday
  • State of the Association report by Executive Director on Friday
  • Practical skills training for all attendees including
    • Unifying Juries in a Dangerously Divided World by David Ball, PhD,  and Artemis Malekpour  (three-hour session focusing on trial skills with the nation’s only trial consulting team qualified and certified to advise attorneys on Reptilian methods and techniques)
  • President’s Gala open to ALL members on Saturday
  • Concurrent Civil Law and Criminal Law Update
    • Jon Moore has pulled together the most significant appellate cases that have impacted civil practice over the past year. In this three-hour session, hear first-hand from the attorneys of record and take home best practice tips for implementing the appellate case law in your practice
    • Join Duke University School of Law professors Theresa Newman and Jamie Lau for a nuts and bolts approach to post-conviction work at the state and federal level. Newman and Lau, who run the law school’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, will lead you from investigations to federal habeas. Immediately following their presentation, hear from criminal defense attorney David Rudolf in a presentation that drives home the importance of criminal defense work
  • Board of Governors Orientation

Don’t Miss Some of these Old Favorites, too:

  • Edwards Kirby Opening Reception
  • NCAJ Awards Presentation
  • NCAJ Section meetings and gatherings

Make Your Hotel Reservations Today
Mention the NC Advocates for Justice for discounted rates at Hotel Ballast and Riverview SuitesGroup rates available until May 19.

NCAJ Women’s Caucus Retreat – Join us!

abrams.melissa  by Melissa Abrams, NCAJ Women’s Caucus Chair


The NCAJ Women’s Caucus FIRST ANNUAL retreat is quickly approaching.

The retreat (Feb 28-March 1) offers a full-day seminar containing a range of topics to build and improve your practice taught by North Carolina’s finest female trial lawyers – including three female Past Presidents/President of NCAJ. Each session of this “How-To” seminar will provide you with invaluable and resourceful takeaways that can be applied to your practice and to your daily professional life. In addition to top-notch CLE, the social activities will provide you with the opportunity to build relationships with other NCAJ female trial lawyers. The retreat takes place in Winston-Salem on February 28-March 1. Register today.

The retreat is only open to members of the NCAJ Women’s Caucus. Not a member of the NCAJ Women’s Caucus? Good News! The NCAJ Women’s Caucus is open and free to any female attorney member of NCAJ. 2-28-19_WomensCaucusRetreat_Speakers

NCAJ Attorneys Protect Your Rights: Jan 2019 edition

robby jessup  by Robby Jessup

NCAJ attorneys & other NCAJ legal professionals protect the citizens of North Carolina who have been harmed. For a snapshot of their work, read NCAJ’s January 2019 Verdicts, Settlements and Dispositions column, linked below.

Congratulations to all attorneys highlighted in the column:  George V. Laughrun II of Goodman, Carr, Laughrun, Levine & Greene, PLLC in Charlotte and L. Bree Laughrun of Horack, Talley, Pharr & Lowndes, P.A. in Charlotte; Leto Copeley and Drew H. Culler of Copeley Johnson & Groninger, PLLC in Durham, in association with David Stradley of White & Stradley, PLLC in Raleigh;  Kevin M. Duffan and Richard N. Shapiro of Shapiro & Appleton, P.C. in Virginia Beach, in association with Travis E. Collum of Collum & Perry, PLLC in Mooresville, and Patricia P. Shields and Joshua D. Neighbors in Raleigh; Brooke A. Howard of Howard Law, PLLC in Raleigh, in association with Michael J. Byrne of Byrne Law, PC in Raleigh; Thomas L. Odom Jr. of The Odom Firm, PLLC in Charlotte, in  association with W. Winston Briggs of W. Winston Briggs Law Firm in Atlanta; Rachel Alexis Fuerst and Thomas W. Henson Jr. of HensonFuerst, P.A. and C. Boyd Sturges III of Davis, Sturges & Tomlinson, Attorneys at Law.

Click to read full article



NCAJ Members Protect Your Rights: October 2018 edition

robby jessup  by Robby Jessup

NCAJ attorneys & other NCAJ legal professionals protect the citizens of North Carolina who have been harmed. For a snapshot of their work, read NCAJ’s October 2018 Verdicts, Settlements and Dispositions column, linked below.

Congratulations to all attorneys highlighted in the column:   Robert Elliot and Michael Elliot of Elliot Morgan ParsonageJustin Lowenberger of Ted A. Greve & Associates, Assistant Capital Defender Stephen Freedman, William Durham of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, Sidney Fligel and Preston Lesley of the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin, Assistant Appellate Defenders Barbara Blackman, John Carella and Kathy VandenBerg, Paul Tharp of Arnold & Smith, PLLC; Assistant Public Defender Richard Miller; Tabitha Bingham of Bingham Law PLLC, and Stuart Paynter, Sara Willingham, Jennifer Murray and Celeste Boyd of the Paynter Law Firm.

Click to read full article



NCAJ Members Protect North Carolinians Many Different Ways

robby jessup  by Robby Jessup


NCAJ attorneys and other NCAJ legal professionals offer relief and protection to citizens who have been harmed.

For example, NCAJ’s July Trial Briefs magazine’s Verdicts, Settlements and Dispositions Column describes a dog bite case win;  a win pertaining to the constitutional rights of public employees; a verdict for an elderly couple’s mental anguish against a home healthcare company; an appellate victory for workers’ compensation claimants; a second-degree verdict for a client facing first degree murder (Life Without Parole); a jury verdict for compensatory damages for the negligent handling of human remains; a settlement for a wrongful death of a motorcyclist and other auto accident verdicts.

Congratulations to all attorneys highlighted in the column:  Alex Woodyard of the Law Offices of William K. Goldfarb; Luke Largess and Cheyenne Chambers of Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, PLLC; Jeremy Wilson of Ward & Smith, P.A.; Wade Byrd of the Law Offices of Wade E. Byrd, P.A; Bradley Smith of Campbell & Associates; Charles Hinnant and Dr. Ted Greve of Ted A. Greve & Associates; Assistant Public Defenders Matthew Geoffrion and Taplie Coile; James Rogers of James E Rogers, PA; and Robby Jessup and Joan Davis of Howard Stallings Law Firm.

Click image below to read full article

verdicts settlement dispositions column july 2018_Page_1


Part 2: The Educators

by Bradley Bannon, NCAJ President

By now, even if you haven’t seen it, it’s hard to imagine you haven’t at least heard of the movie “Black Panther.” In four months this year, it became the ninth highest grossing movie of all time. The fact that it’s a superhero movie was unremarkable. The fact that the superhero was an African man, whose three strongest and closest allies in the movie were all African women, each with different areas of skill and expertise, was unprecedented.

“Half the battle is getting that kind of imagery made,” Rafe Chisolm told SF Gate. “Lots of kids never see anyone who looks like them in that kind of light.” Chisolm made sure that lots of them did, by organizing screenings for them in their home town of Oakland, California—a key location in the plot of the movie.

I’d learned a similar lesson about imagery while working with Karonnie Truzy and Sarah Olson in their roles as Co-Chairs of NCAJ’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force (DITF).

Karonnie, who also serves as the organization’s inaugural Diversity Officer and is receiving an Ebbie Award this year for his years of service to the NCAJ and its mission, told me about how he had to be contacted several times about becoming more involved in the organization before he finally agreed. Why the initial reluctance? Because he hadn’t really seen anyone else who looked like him in leadership, or behind the podium at the front of the rooms where most of our members regularly convene: our CLEs.

Sarah, who also serves as the Criminal Defense Section Chair this year and previously received an Ebbie herself, spoke more bluntly about the impact of imagery at that podium: “When you are a woman, and you attend CLEs where every single faculty member is a man, it raises real concerns about the role of women in the organization and how women are viewed by the organization.”

This makes perfect sense. It’s not as if our profession is devoid of women and people of color who are highly qualified to teach our CLE programs. So when you don’t see them at the podium, and when you are one of them, you may quite naturally wonder whether there’s much of a role for you in the organization and its CLE programming, beyond paying for admission of course. And the more you’re made to wonder that, the more likely you are to seek other professional communities and programs where you feel more welcome.

In recent years, NCAJ leadership has recognized shifting sands in our population, profession, and organization. In 2015-2016, NCAJ President Chris Nichols highlighted the need to attract Millennials, who by that time had already surpassed Baby Boomers in the workforce. In 2016-2017, President Bill Powers recognized the need to focus more intentionally on diversity in our membership and leadership. This year, I have built on both of those initiatives by developing a more formal organizational framework to connect with the state’s law schools and students.

NCAJ’s effort to reach Millennials and tap into the law school pipeline is no more designed to exclude or devalue our members of other generations (like me) than its effort to strengthen diversity and see more women and people of color behind CLE podiums is designed to exclude or devalue members of any other categorical group (like me). Quite the contrary, it’s all designed to recognize an undeniable truth: there is strength in numbers.

The pragmatic side of that truth is that NCAJ must expand and cultivate a broad membership base to survive and successfully pursue our mission in an evolving profession. The aspirational side of that truth is what we recognized when we adopted our Diversity Statement last year. And both sides are served by putting people behind the podium in our CLEs who are not only qualified, but reflect all members of our profession and organization.

That is why, after publication for comment, the Board of Governors adopted a Diversity Plan last fall that included an initial goal of developing and implementing a Speaker Diversity Program. Working with DITF membership and leadership, as well as Education Committee members and Vice President Meghann Burke, NCAJ Executive Director Kim Crouch and Education Director Alex Rogers developed an infrastructure of member tools and staff support to assist CLE planners in achieving more speaker diversity.

We now have a Speaker Diversity Database, and our staff will be working with members to build that database over the months and years to come into a powerful resource for helping program planners identify qualified presenters. We have created a checklist for planners, highlighting the speaker diversity goal. We have begun to collect and analyze data on a quarterly basis about the extent to which we achieve the goal and the factors involved in that success. We are working more closely with Section and Division Chairs to identify speakers at the Section levels. Membership Vice President Sonya Pfeiffer has been working with Membership and Development Director Amy Page Smith to establish and renew our connections to affiliate organizations and affinity bars.

These institutionalized efforts are long overdue. NCAJ did not suddenly begin to value the worth and dignity of all of our clients and members when we adopted the Diversity Statement and crafted the Diversity Plan last year. We just became more intentional about weaving that valuation into the fabric of our entire organization. In terms of institutionalizing the efforts, we are either shoulder-to-shoulder with or trailing other professional organizations. This point was brought home to me in March, when, in my capacity as NCAJ President, I accepted an invitation from Dayatra Matthews, the first African-American female President of the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys, to attend NCADA’s first day-long program focused on identifying and addressing white privilege and implicit bias, two loaded terms I wrote about coming to terms with myself in this space last week. Fortunately, nothing but good can come from our institutionalized efforts, and everything about them is who we are and need to be.

Specifically regarding the Speaker Diversity Program, we have recognized the reality that the educators at our CLE programs are not just teaching attendees about the substance of their presentations, but about the substance of who we are and who we value as an organization. Because #WeAreNCAJ, we value everyone who shares our mission—from our clients, to our members, to our leaders, to our educators. Since that’s the substance of who we are, it should certainly be the imagery we project.

And, of course, #WakandaForever.

Part 1: The Insider

by Bradley Bannon, NCAJ President

Like many of you, I watched in horror last summer as the convergence of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminated with the martyrdom of paralegal Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old counter-protester who was made to pay for her commitment to equality with her life.

In the aftermath, I also watched in horror as the President of the United States made equivocal remarks that put Heather and her anti-racist group on the same moral plane as the group of racists they showed up to counter-protest.

Earlier in the year, before those events became another example of a racial divide that has plagued our state and country since birth, I had decided to dig deeper into the modern perpetrators of that divide—the ones less obvious than a bunch of neo-Nazis having a tiki torch parade.

That’s when I started to understand what is meant by “white privilege.” I’d heard that term many times before and received it as an insult, loaded with the implication that, as a white man, I didn’t really deserve any of the fruits of my hard work—or, more to the point, that my work wasn’t really that hard to begin with.

I felt similarly about the term “implicit bias.” For as long as I could remember—from shutting down racist jokes on the playground as a kid, to fighting for the rights of the accused in a criminal justice system infected at every level with disparate treatment of people based on race and ethnicity—there was not an ounce of racial bias in my body, implicit or otherwise.

So when I started to look further into the divide, and what could be done to reduce it, I started in a defensive posture. Fortunately, my defensiveness soon yielded to something even more powerful: my appreciation for facts and intellectual honesty.

I took Harvard’s Implicit Association Test on Race and learned that, in the corners of my mind I can’t control, I have a strong preference for white people over black people. I attended the Racial Equity Institute’s two-day Phase I workshop, sponsored by Organizing Against Racism. I started doing some suggested reading: “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander; “Slave by Another Name,” by Douglas Blackmon; “Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People,” by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald; and others.

I learned that it takes only a little bit of genuine curiosity to understand how racism in our country and its institutions is like any other virus: it has constantly changed forms to survive and thrive. And it has infected systems built up over hundreds of years in the United States. Banking systems. Employment systems. Housing systems. Retail systems. Voting systems.

Justice systems.

It’s not hard for an open mind to accept the fact that systems of gender and racial preference, invented and expanded by white men over centuries in which they were favored in law and fact, would continue in the present day to greatly benefit white men, in practice if not by actual design.

The preferences are so ingrained in our culture, I realized, that I could subconsciously perpetuate them even as I consciously abhorred them. And once I got past my initial defensiveness about that dichotomy, I chose to receive that knowledge as a gift and a call to action.

No single person created these preferential systems. No single generation did it. And no single person or generation will be able to undo it. But as a white man, I know I am valuably positioned to push back against them. I am, after all, an insider.

That does not make me the creator of the problem, but it makes me a perpetuator of it if I deny it, or ignore it, or allow my knee-jerk reaction to loaded terms like “white privilege” and “implicit bias” prevent me from recognizing the undeniable truths beneath them. And doing something about it.

Like many who have chosen to stand as guardian of the injured and the accused, I feel called to change myself, this country, and its systems for the better. In my day job, I have recently pivoted toward civil rights work, but I continue to represent people accused and convicted of crimes, in a system that was originally designed and has always been used to control, disenfranchise, and marginalize people of color. In my volunteer work, I have used my position and privilege as a leader in NCAJ to fight for greater equality and fairness in the criminal and civil justice systems.

This past year, with the honor of the NCAJ presidency, I have focused on diversity, inclusion, and equity within the organization, so that it may further serve and strengthen its mission of protecting people’s rights—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender (including gender identity), sexual orientation, disability, religion, nationality, socioeconomic status, or any other categorization.

I’m not doing these things because I overestimate my importance or influence. Or because I think the traditionally marginalized are incapable of successfully pushing back and gaining ground.

I’m doing it because I should. Because I want to be who I think I am. Because I want this country to be what I always hoped it would be. And because I want everyone to have the same shot—in this nation, state, profession, and organization—that I did by accident of gender and the color of my skin.

Since it began in the 1960s, NCAJ has moved the legal systems of North Carolina closer to that goal, but we have more work to do. And that work starts with any effort that hopes to succeed, and something that NCAJ has been quite good at over the last half-century:


Click here to read Part 2 of this series, ‘The Educators.


Understanding Traumatic Brain Injury After Injury

When a person is injured in a car wreck, motorcycle wreck, or other personal injury, sometimes the most harmful injuries are those that you cannot see with the naked eye:  a brain injury.  Sometimes brain injuries are obvious and an injured person’s functioning is so impaired that they are left unable to speak, walk, or feed themselves.  Other times, the brain injury is subtler.  Called a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) , these injuries can be as devastating as a spinal cord injury or any other serious injury.  However, because the injured person may “look” normal, it can be more difficult to recover compensation for these types of cases.

Brain Anatomy

The human brain is the most complex and sensitive organ in the body.  Weighing only about 3 lbs., the brain is the essence of what makes a person who they are.    There are several parts to the brain, and each part has its own function.  The three (3) main parts are the cerebrum, cerebellum and the brain stem.  The brain stem is located at the base of the brain and contains the midbrain, pons and medulla.  This section of the brain is responsible for automatic body functions such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, and regulating body temperature.  It also serves as a relay system between the rest of the brain and the central nervous system.  An injury to this area of the brain usually is catastrophic and results in death.

The cerebellum is above the brain stem and it coordinates muscle movements and balance.

The largest part of the brain is the cerebrum and is divided into right and left hemispheres.  This part of the brain is associated with higher brain function including thinking, memory, and emotion.  It is filled with approximately 100 billion neurons which are elongated nerve cells that transmit signals to each other through electrical and chemical signals.  The communication between these cells enable us to think, have emotion, react to stimuli, and remember.  These cells are very small, about 30,000 neurons can fit on the head of a pin, and can only be observed under strong microscopes.

The brain has the consistency of firm jelly.  It floats in fluid, called cerebra spinal fluid, which acts as a shock absorber.  It is also surrounded by protective tissue called meninges.  Outside of the meninges, the brain is surrounded by the skull.


Despite its protective coating, the brain can suffer injury when the head suffers a blow or the head is thrown forward and backward quickly, as can happen in a car wreck.  The brain is subject to the same laws of physics as everything else, and when a person is in a car wreck at 45 mph and comes to a sudden and violent stop, the brain continues its motion until it, too stops, by striking the inside of the skull.

When the brain impacts the skull, a mild traumatic brain injury can occur.  Some of those billions of neurons can be damaged, the axons of the nerve cell can be bent or broken, and the ability of the brain cells to “talk to” each other can become impaired.  When this type of injury happens, the person may have difficulty talking, remembering information, or controlling emotions.


Each brain injury is unique.  Like a fingerprint, as each person has a unique brain, each person’s symptoms of and reaction to a mTBI is different.  However, some common symptoms include:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seeing stars
  • Confusion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to Light/ Noise
  • Blurred vision
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of sense of smell

Symptoms that might manifest themselves at a later date include:

  • Difficulty following conversations
  • Struggling to find the right word
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty with short term memory
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Lashing out and yelling at family members
  • Withdrawal and disengaging from social situations and friends and family

Why can’t we see a mTBI on an x-ray, CT scan or MRI?

X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs are very good tools at getting a picture of the human body.  Think of these tools as good digital cameras taking pictures of inside of the body.  They can spot diseases, broken bones, and internal organ damage.  They help doctors see inside a patient’s body without having to cut open the body and look for themselves.

What these tools cannot do, however, is see the body’s cells up close.  Instead of the digital camera, due to the very small size of neurons, a doctor needs a microscope, and a very powerful microscope at that.  Because we cannot take brain cells out of the brain and look at them under a microscope, mTBI cannot currently be diagnosed with scans or blood testing on a living patient.     Researchers are working on ways to find mTBI by blood testing, by tracing protein levels (Tau proteins), but this research is still in development and not available to the public.


The outcome of a person who suffers a mild traumatic brain injury can be difficult to predict.  As each brain injury is different and unique, a person’s ability to recover is unique.  However, certain factors can make a good recovery more likely.  Younger individuals, for example, are more likely to recover from brain injury than older individuals.  Obtaining therapies from a qualified speech therapist can also help.  An injured patient is also more likely to recover if they obtain competent medical care following their accident.  Many people make a full recovery.  However, some injured people do not.  Doctors predict that most of an injured person’s recovery from a mild traumatic brain injury will occur within the first year after the accident.  After that point, recovery is not as certain.  Additionally, persons suffering from mTBI are at higher risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life.


Many people who suffer from mild traumatic brain injury look normal at first glance.  However, although the injury may be invisible to the casual observer, it is very real.  Injured persons need our support and encouragement.  With time and luck, they may return to a functioning level.  For those that do not, the injured person needs the best care medicine can provide and our compassion.


Ruth Smith is a dedicated trial lawyer in Asheville, NC representing people since 1999.  She focuses her practice in Personal Injury, Car Accidents, Social Security Disability, Workers’ Compensation and Dog Bite Injuries. She is a member of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice’s Auto Torts and Workers’ Compensation Sections and is a certified North Carolina Court Mediator. For more information, visit

Vocational Rehabilitation in NC Workers’ Comp Claims

An important goal of the workers’ compensation system in North Carolina is to quickly return injured workers back to employment as close to their pre-injury wage as practical. Ideally, the worker can return to full-time, full-duty work in his or her prior occupation. But often permanent restrictions related to the workplace injury make this impossible. In these situations, vocational rehabilitation, or “voc rehab,” can play an important role in returning an injured worker to gainful employment.

Vocational rehabilitation in North Carolina workers’ compensation claims is regulated by North Carolina General Statute § 97-32.2, and Subchapter 10C of the Rules for Utilization of Rehabilitation Professionals. Together these provisions set the ground rules for voc rehab for NC workers’ compensation claimants. The North Carolina Industrial Commission decides any disputes that may arise between the injured worker and the employer that relate to vocational rehabilitation efforts.

What is Vocational Rehabilitation?

Vocational rehabilitation includes a broad range of services meant to help return the employee to work in “suitable employment.” Vocational rehabilitation efforts are directed by a certified vocational Rehabilitation professional and may include:

  • assessing an injured employee’s work qualifications, including skills, education and aptitude;
  • identifying factors that may impair a return to work, including physical and job skill imitations;
  • identifying skills, certifications or training that might improve the workers’ job prospects;
  • arranging for appropriate classes or training in the North Carolina community college or university systems;
  • providing job-search counseling and assistance with resume preparation;
  • identifying suitable job opportunities in the job market as well as specific job leads.

It is the job of the voc rehab professional to provide these services, within the framework provided by North Carolina General Statute § 97-32.2, and Subchapter 10C of the Rules for Utilization of Rehabilitation Professionals.

When is Vocational Rehabilitation allowed?

An employer can begin vocational rehabilitation services at any time during an accepted workers’ compensation claim. An employer cannot require vocational rehabilitation in a denied claim. Certain severely injured workers may not be required to participate in voc rehab if they are receiving disability benefits beyond 500 weeks under G.S. §97‑29(c), or have been determined to be permanently and totally disabled pursuant to or G.S. §97‑29(d).

An employee can request vocational rehabilitation services when he or she has not returned to work, or has returned to work making less than seventy-five percent (75%) of what he or she was making before the injury. An employee’s request can include training in the North Carolina community college or university system so long as the training is likely to improve the worker’s wage-earning ability.

Vocational rehabilitation services continue so long as they might be beneficial to the worker and the employer is willing to pay for it. The Industrial Commission has the authority to order vocational rehabilitation to continue or be terminated.

Who can provide Vocational Rehabilitation services?

Vocational Rehabilitation services in North Carolina can only be provided by a qualified vocational rehabilitation professional approved by the North Carolina Industrial Commission. There are strict rules governing who can qualify as a vocational rehabilitation professional in North Carolina workers’ compensation cases. The Industrial Commission keeps a list of qualified voc rehab professionals.

Generally, a vocational rehabilitation specialist must be hold on of several specific certifications, have at least two years of experience working with disabled workers, and complete a special course in North Carolina workers’ compensation case management. Vocational rehabilitation professionals must attend continuing education classes in to remain qualified, and must follow the ethics rules and laws of their own occupation.

What are the guidelines for a Vocational Rehabilitation Professional?

The employer or its workers’ compensation insurance company makes the initial selection of the vocational rehabilitation professional, and pays for vocational rehabilitation in the same way it pays for medical treatment. The insurance carrier should notify the Industrial Commission when a vocational rehabilitation professional is retained.

Although the employer selects the initial vocational rehabilitation professional, they are to use their own best independent judgment in their work. Voc Rehab professionals are not agents of the employer. Vocational rehabilitation professionals should not give legal advice to the injured worker about any aspect of their claim, engage in settlement discussions between the parties, or assist the employer in investigating the claim.

At their initial meeting the vocational vehabilitation professional should provide the worker a copy of the rules that govern vocational rehabilitation, and advise the worker that the VR professional will share relevant information from the rehabilitation process with the employer. If the injured worker has an workers’ compensation attorney the initial meeting must be at the attorney’s office if requested.

The vocational rehabilitation professional should prepare regular reports of vocational activities and share these reports with the employer and injured worker at the same time, or at least let the injured worker know the report is available for review. The reports should contain only information relevant to the rehabilitation process, and not information simply intended to embarrass the worker or make him or her look bad.

A vocational rehabilitation professional should refer an injured worker only to suitable work, and should end the rehabilitation process when it is not likely to be successful. Either the employer or employee may ask the Industrial Commission to replace the vocational rehabilitation professional for good cause.

What is an Individualized Vocational Plan?

The first step in vocational rehabilitation is developing a return-to-work plan that is tailored to the needs and circumstances of the injured worker. Developing the plan should be a cooperative effort among the voc rehab professional assigned to the case, the injured worker and the employer. This should include a face-to-face meeting between the vocational professional and the injured worker.

Vocational rehabilitation services cannot begin until the return-to work plan is complete, and all vocational activities must be consistent with the plan. According to the rules governing vocational rehabilitation, return to work options should be prioritized in this order:

  1. current job, current employer;
  2. new job, current employer;
  3. on-the-job training, current employer;
  4. new job, new employer;
  5. on-the-job training, new employer;
  6. formal education or vocational training to prepare the worker for a job with current or new employer; and
  7. self-employment, only when its feasibility is documented with reference to the employee’s aptitudes and training, adequate capitalization, and market conditions.

What happens if the employee refuses to cooperate with Vocational Rehabilitation?

An employee is required to participate in vocational rehabilitation when it is offered. If the employee refuses to cooperate with vocational rehabilitation the Industrial Commission can order the employee to comply. If the employee continues to refuse to cooperate, and the refusal is unjustified, then the Industrial Commission can suspend the employee’s wage replacemen benefits. The Industrial Commission must say in its order suspending benefits what action the employee should take to end the suspension of benefits. A vocational rehabilitation professional who believes that an injured worker is not cooperating with vocational efforts should document what the worker should do in order to return to compliance.

Few injured workers simply refuse to cooperate with vocational rehabilitation. More often, workers will object to what they see as unnecessary or even silly vocational activities. These may include the vocational counselor requiring too frequent meetings, application for jobs the employee is not physically or otherwise qualified for or that are not suitable, and even participation in volunteer activities. Many times, the vocational rehabilitation professional and the injured worker struggle to effectively communicate the date, time and place of meetings, leading to missed appointments and allegations that the employee is not cooperating.

What is the Role of a Lawyer in Vocational Rehabilitation?

Vocational rehabilitation can tricky for an injured worker. A North Carolina Workers’ Compensation lawyer can help keep things on track. While voc rehab should be a team effort with the goal of helping the injured worker return to a suitable job, it can turn into a game of “gotcha” with the goal being to terminate the employee’s wage replacement benefits. Sometimes vocational rehabilitation is used to prod an injured worker to settle their NC workers’ compensation claim.

The role of a lawyer in vocational rehabilitation is to be sure everyone follows the rules and to help ensure a smooth process. A workers’ compensation attorney should stay closely involved in the vocational rehabilitation process. This includes attending the initial meeting between the injured worker and the vocational professional, regular communication with the injured worker and the vocational professional, and review of the job leads being submitted to the employee to be sure they are suitable.

Kevin Bunn is a North Carolina workers’ compensation lawyer. He has practiced law in Cary, North Carolina, since 1993. Kevin is a Board Certified Expert in North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Law, a member of the North Carolina Industrial Commission’s Advisory Council, a past Chair of the NCAJ Workers’ Compensation Section, and serves on the NCAJ Board of Governors. For more information about Kevin and his law practice please visit