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Brandon joined Rasmussen Dickey Moore as an associate in November of 2018. His practice mainly focuses on insurance defense and toxic torts.

Prior to joining RDM, Brandon worked for defense firms in Madison County, Illinois and Evansville, Indiana representing individuals, small businesses, and major corporations in a variety of claims, including employment discrimination, personal injury/wrongful death, and contract disputes.

He also gained experience as an extern clerk for the Honorable Lloyd Karmeier, Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. In law school, Brandon was the editor-in-chief of his law journal and member of multiple moot court appellate advocacy teams.

The defense you need.

Brandon and the other associates at RDM work with their team of experienced, nationally recognized defense litigators to bring unmatched dedication and attention to detail to your case. Talk to Brandon today to see what RDM can do for you.

Education

  • Southern Illinois University-Carbondale

    Juris Doctor, summa cum laude 2013

  • University of Evansville

    Bachelor of Science 2006

Admissions

  • State of Illinois
  • State of Indiana
  • State of Kentucky
  • State of Missouri

Honors
& Awards

  • Extern Clerk, Hon. Lloyd Karmeier Illinois Supreme Court

RDM's Knowledge Blog Posts by Brandon Powell

A person receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. RDM's Brandon Powell discusses employer mandated vaccinations.

In a previous post on the RDM Knowledge Blog, we wrote about the legal authority of both federal and state governments to mandate vaccinations among its citizens. In the article, we surmised that although states would have the authority to require vaccines, the political climate rendered such a position unlikely. This has been largely borne out, as no state has made vaccinations compulsory among non-employees, even more than six months after the widespread availability of multiple vaccines and despite lagging vaccination numbers in many states.

Instead, recent mandatory vaccine headlines have been driven by private employers. Earlier this month, the news network CNN fired three employees for coming to work unvaccinated, while Houston-based Methodist Hospital lost 150 employees after it initiated a policy that required all employees to receive the vaccine. Various other corporations, including Facebook, Ford, and Goldman Sachs, have also instituted mandatory COVID vaccine policies for its employees.

As the actions of these major corporations suggest, mandatory vaccination policies are, generally speaking, valid and enforceable. Nevertheless, enforcement of these policies is not without complication. Employers may have to provide “reasonable accommodation” to persons unwilling or unable to be vaccinated for religious reasons or due to disability or pregnancy. Furthermore, the passage of state bills prohibiting mandatory vaccination programs make matters even more complicated.

Federal Employment Law and COVID Vaccination Mandates

Most employment in the United States is “at will,” meaning that the employee-employer relationship exists at the “will” of the parties, lasting only so long as both parties wish to continue it.  An employee can resign from his or her job for any reason. Likewise, an employer can dismiss an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason as all, as long as the reason is not prohibited by law. 

Furthermore, employers have a duty, under both federal and state law, to maintain a reasonably safe work environment for their employees (think OSHA).

Based upon these general principles, employers have the duty to create a safe workplace for their employees, which may generally include compulsory vaccinations. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agrees, concluding that “federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19.”

However, as with many aspects of federal employment law, there are notable caveats to this general rule of which employers must be aware. While an employer may initiate a generally applicable rule for mandatory COVID-19 vaccines, per the EEOC, they will be subject to “reasonable accommodation provisions of Title VII and the ADA and other EEO considerations.”

Stated plainly, this means that if an employee is unable to comply with the employer’s vaccination policy due to sincerely held religious belief, disability, pregnancy, or another protected issue, an employer must provide the employee a reasonable accommodation unless it can show that doing so would provide an “undue hardship” on the employer. Examples of accommodations that the EEOC recognizes include face masks, having the employee work in a socially distanced workspace away from other employees, modified work shifts, periodic COVID testing, or giving the employee the opportunity to telework.

The full nature and extent of these accommodations have not been litigated in the courts yet, at least not within the context of the COVID pandemic. But employers should, at minimum, engage in the interactive process upon learning of an employee’s desire for accommodation. 

State Laws and COVID Vaccine Requirements

Analysis of these issues under state law generally begin with the same general principles. “At will” employment is recognized in every state other than Montana. As such, employers can terminate employees on any non-prohibited basis, including violation of generally applicable workplace safety policies. See Farris v. Dep’t of Empl. Sec., 2014 IL (4th) 130391 (affirming the termination of an employee for violation of biosecurity safety policy under Illinois law).

However, given the political nature of the COVID pandemic, state legislatures around the county have complicated this issue by introducing, and in some cases enacting, bills prohibiting employers from requiring vaccinations. As of August 17th, 2021, at least five states have laws that limit (or will limit upon the effective date) an employer’s ability to take adverse action against an unvaccinated employee. Those states are Arizona, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Ohio. Each bill differs in their details, ranging from Arizona’s requirement that employers must reasonably accommodate religious objections to the vaccine to Montana’s prohibition against requiring employees receive the vaccine as a condition of employment.

Additionally, a majority of states have bills pending which could impact an employer’s right in this regard, though eventual passage of these bills depends on their individual circumstances. In Illinois, the COVID-19 Workplace Vaccination Program Limitation Act would prohibit an employer from creating a mandatory vaccination program, though this bill has been stuck in committee since May of 2021, and is ultimately unlikely to pass.

In Missouri, on the other hand, multiple bills have already been introduced in the legislature (see House Bill 566 and Senate Resolution 203), and given that Missouri Governor Mike Parson has already signed a law to prohibit vaccine passports—preventing governmental entities from requiring citizens to be vaccinated—it is likely that employment bills could receive more traction in this state.

Can You Require a COVID Vaccination as an Employer?

Before enacting any workplace policies on vaccination, employers should check the status of statewide bills to determine whether the vaccination requirements would be permissible or enforceable in the state. Rasmussen Dickey Moore’s Employment and Labor Law Team advises employers on complying with federal, state, and local laws. As the legislative landscape rapidly changes through the pandemic, trust RDM to help you keep your employees safe and keep your business safe from legal action. Contact RDM today to discuss your needs.

The Missouri Capitol. Missouri legislators recently amended laws pertaining to "065 agreements." Photo by Paul Sableman.

On June 29th, 2021, Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed into law SS HB 345, which will go into effect on August 28th. The law amends Missouri’s unique statutory law, predominantly viewed as favoring policy holders and plaintiffs’ attorneys seeking garnishments and third-party actions against insurance companies.  

Insurance carriers who believe they have a defense to coverage have faced complex risk analysis in Missouri. While the duty to defend is generally broader than the duty to indemnify, third-party claims against carriers in Missouri have become an increasingly popular weapon.

When faced with a claim, a carrier has a few options: 

  • Accept the defense of the claim without any reservation of rights, which triggers a duty to indemnify;
  • Defend under reservation of rights and file a declaration action to determine coverage; or
  • Outright deny coverage and a defense.

What is an 065 Agreement?

In Missouri, when there is a dispute as to coverage between a defendant and its insurer, R.S.Mo. § 537.065 allows plaintiff and defendant to enter into an agreement that a plaintiff will only collect on a judgment from the defendant’s insurance carrier. These agreements usually arise when there has been a disclaimer of coverage or a rejection of a reservation of rights defense which is treated as a denial of coverage in Missouri.

Prior to HB 345, parties could enter into an 065 settlement agreement to shift liability to one party or insurer. Parties could provide notice only at the eleventh hour before a judgment in the matter was entered, and the insurer would then be bound by the judgment.  Several recent cases—Britt v. Otto, Aguilar v. GEICO, and Geiler v. Liberty (see our recent analysis of this case)—illustrate how the past provisions of 537.065 had been used by plaintiffs to set up insurers for bad faith claims, obtain rulings in alternative dispute resolution settings, and effectively wipe away the insurer’s ability to do anything to protect its own interests unless it agrees to provide full coverage from the outset.

What are the new changes to 537.065?

Timing

In 2017, an amendment was passed and signed into law requiring that before a judgment could be entered in an 065 agreement, an insurer needed to be provided with written notice of the execution of the contract and be given thirty days to intervene as a matter of right in pending litigation involving the claim for damages. The most recent amendments attempt to close the timing loopholes that allowed gamesmanship of notice to carriers with specific timelines for different scenarios of litigation:

If any action seeking a judgment on the claim against the tort-feasor is pending at the time of the execution of any contract entered into under this section, then, within thirty days after such execution, the tort-feasor shall provide his or her insurer or insurers with a copy of the executed contract and a copy of any such action. 

If any action seeking a judgment on the claim against the tort-feasor is pending at the time of the execution of any contract entered into under this section but is thereafter dismissed, then, within thirty days after the refiling of that action or the filing of any subsequent action arising out of the claim for damages against the tort-feasor, the tort-feasor shall provide his or her insurer or insurers with a copy of the executed contract and a copy of the refiled or subsequently filed action seeking a judgment on the claim against the tort-feasor.

If no action seeking a judgment on the claim against the tort-feasor is pending at the time of the execution of any contract entered into under this section, then, within thirty days after the tort-feasor receives notice of any subsequent action, by service of process or otherwise, the tort-feasor shall provide his or her insurer or insurers with a copy of the executed contract and a copy of any action seeking a judgment on the claim against the tort-feasor.

Rights After Intervention

New language in 537.065 also makes clear that if an insurance carrier chooses to intervene in an 065 agreement then, “the intervenor shall have all rights afforded to defendants under the Missouri rules of civil procedure and reasonable and sufficient time to meaningfully assert its position including, but not limited to, the right and time to conduct discovery, the right and time to engage in motion practice, and the right to a trial by jury and sufficient time to prepare for trial.” Further, no order regarding the claim matter shall be binding on the carrier choosing to intervene if the order is entered prior to the intervention.

No Private Arbitration End Run

The law also amends Missouri’s Uniform Arbitration Act to make clear that plaintiffs may not use private arbitration to circumvent proper notice to the carrier and the opportunity to intervene.  Any arbitration occurring without the consent of the insurer is not binding and the choice not to participate shall not be construed to be bad faith.

In Conclusion

The changes to 537.065 go into effect on August 28th, 2021. Even when the changes become effective, insurers must continue to stay on their toes as plaintiffs’ attorneys seek opportunities to stay one step ahead.

While the changes to Missouri law may be more favorable to insurers, it is still absolutely essential that insurers have the right counsel to help them assess their options. RDM’s extensive experience in complex claims coverage allows us to provide detailed assessments accounting for a wide array of possible outcomes. Though the laws may change, insurers should remain vigilant when it comes to their Missouri claims.

From coverage opinions to defense at trial, RDM’s Insurance Law team can lead insurers through complex claims at every step of the way keeping them informed and prepared for the latest changes in state law. Contact RDM today to discuss how new laws may affect you.

The Johnson & Johnson verdict was delivered at the Civil Courts Building in Downtown St. Louis, MO. Photo by Tom Lampe.

Johnson & Johnson is looking to strike a blow to one of the more infamous verdicts in the City of St. Louis. While St. Louis has long had a reputation for plaintiff-friendly decisions, the largest verdict by far was $4.69 billion against Johnson & Johnson for 22 plaintiffs in July 2018.

In the summer of 2020, the verdict was upheld by the Missouri Court of Appeals. On November 3rd, 2020, the Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from Johnson & Johnson and Johnson & Johnson Consumer, Inc. in Robert Ingham et al. v. Johnson & Johnson, et al. The courts let stand a state appellate decision which affirmed a $2.2 billion jury verdict against the consumer giant and for women who claimed their ovarian cancer was caused by use of Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products.

Johnson & Johnson called the trial verdict “fundamentally flawed” and “at odds with decades of independent scientific evaluations confirming [their products were] safe.” They vowed to appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court.

In March 2021, Johnson & Johnson filed a petition on three issues related to the verdict: whether consolidating 22 plaintiffs into a single case violated due process; whether the punitive damages award was unconstitutional in light of the actual compensatory award; and whether the trial court actually had personal jurisdiction in the case.

The particular issues raised by Johnson & Johnson highlight many of the concerns raised over the years with Plaintiff friendly procedures in St. Louis. Only five of the 22 plaintiffs resided in Missouri. Other than suing the same defendant for the same product, their cases had little in common. These practices have become commonplace in Missouri and are likely to continue without a ruling from the Supreme Court that would change the current litigation climate.

Continue reading Johnson & Johnson Appeals Landmark St. Louis Verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court
Insurers: don't issue claimants a blank check by opting out of defending your insured. Rasmussen Dickey Moore has extensive insurance law experience that can help you make the right decisions and lead you to the best outcomes.

On January 12th, 2021, the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court ruling against Liberty Insurance Corporation, finding it liable for the $7.5 million remaining balance of a wrongful death judgment. The case provides important lessons for insurers on how to avoid being bound to substantial judgments against their insureds, even where viable policy exclusions exist.

Based upon the current state of Missouri law, insurers in the state will continue to face almost unlimited liability in claims where they choose not to immediately address coverage issues. 

How can an insurer avoid the pitfalls found in this case and other complex claims? Rasmussen Dickey Moore has extensive insurance law experience, providing analysis of coverage issues and counseling insurers in litigation matters. RDM represents multiple national insurance providers. RDM takes sophisticated, strategic, innovative, and detail-oriented approaches to each of our clients’ cases.

Continue reading Could Coverage Denials Give Plaintiffs a Blank Check?
A doctor examines a vial containing a vaccine.

Two COVID-19 vaccines have been submitted for approval to the Food and Drug Administration. While this is an important step towards bringing the pandemic under control, the vaccine’s efficacy is limited unless an overwhelming majority of the population is vaccinated.

Current polling suggests that only a slim majority of people would choose to receive the vaccine. So, if large numbers of people are unwilling to receive the vaccine, what’s next? Can the government make vaccination mandatory? Established case law demonstrates that it’s legally feasible, but whether lawmakers choose to pursue such legislation is an entirely different question in the current political atmosphere.

The Current State of COVID-19 Vaccines

As two apparently safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines rapidly make their way through the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process—the FDA has scheduled a meeting on December 10th, 2020 to consider Pfizer’s emergency use authorization request, and Moderna’s request will be considered a week later—certain Americans (health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities) will likely begin receiving their initial dose [1] of the vaccines before the end of 2020. Initial doses of the vaccines are expected to be available to the general public by the spring of 2021.

Though this is good news, data suggests that government and health officials have a long way to go in convincing the public that the vaccines are safe and effective. Polls indicate that only a slight majority of Americans are currently willing to take the vaccine once available. This is unsurprising given the political polarization around vaccines generally, and the government’s COVID-19 response specifically. The frenzied pace at which these vaccines were developed may also cause skepticism.

As additional information about the vaccines is released, including the clinical trial data, the number of people willing to receive the vaccine should increase. However, if the government is unable to convince enough citizens to take the vaccine, could it actually require vaccination?

Why It Matters: Herd Immunity

The goal of any mass inoculation is to create herd immunity within the population, not just immunity within the individual vaccine recipients. Herd immunity refers to the point at which a threshold number of individuals in a population are immunized from a disease, making further spread of the disease unlikely, even among those not yet immunized. In other words, herd immunity provides protection even to those who are unable to take the vaccine, including the immune-suppressed, those with religious or philosophical objections to vaccinations, and in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, children.

Experts estimate that at least 70% of the population will need to be vaccinated before herd immunity can be achieved. Could this gap—between the number currently willing to take the vaccination and the 70% needed to reach herd immunity—be closed through a mandatory vaccination program?

Mandatory Vaccinations Under State Law

Mandatory vaccinations have a long history the United States. In 1905, the Supreme Court, in Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, upheld a state statute mandating smallpox vaccinations against a constitutional challenge. 197 U.S. 11 (1905). The defendant in that case, Henning Jacobson, was found guilty of refusing to take the vaccine and fined $5. Id. at 14. Jacobson appealed the conviction, arguing that the statute was unconstitutional under various grounds, but principally, that the law was “unreasonable, arbitrary, and oppressive, and, therefore, hostile to the inherent right of every freeman to care of his own body and health in such way as to him seems best.” Id. at 26.

The Supreme Court rejected Jacobson’s arguments, holding that the inherent authority of the state under its “police power” permitted it to enact laws to “protect the public health and public safety.” Id. at 25. Furthermore, the Court wrote, the liberty under the Constitution is not “absolute… wholly freed from restraint.” Id. at 26.  The Court explained:

Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy. Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others… The possession and enjoyment of all rights are subject to such reasonable conditions as may be deemed by the governing authority of the country essential to the safety, health, peace, good order, and morals of the community.

Id.

Unquestionably, Jacobson is “old law,” and it can rightfully be criticized for being overly broad in its language, but it remains good law. Page v. Cuomo, 2020 WL 4589329 (Dist. NY, August 11, 2020). Since the Supreme Court’s decision 115 years ago, “courts across the country have nearly uniformly relied upon Jacobson’s framework to analyze emergency public health measure put in place to curb” public health crises. Id. at 8; see also, Hickox v. Christie, 205 F. Supp.3d 579, 591 (D. N.J. 2016) (evaluating constitutional challenge to federal quarantine order asserted by a plaintiff returning to U.S. after treating Ebola patients abroad). Furthermore, all 50 states have legislation requiring vaccines in some form or another, usually mandating that students receive a vaccination (think measles, mumps, rubella) before attending school.

Mandatory Vaccinations Under Federal Law

While Jacobson supports a state’s authority to enact public safety laws, including mandatory vaccinations, the question of whether the federal government could impose similar requirements is more complex and unsettled. Unlike states, the federal government does not have inherent powers, such as the “police power.” Congress is limited to those grants of power found in the Constitution, and the Constitution provides no explicit authority for Congress to enact public health laws. 

Prior to 2012, Congress would likely have relied upon the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3, which gives Congress the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states” and which had been broadly interpreted to give Congress the authority to regulate both interstate and intrastate commerce. At its broadest, the Commerce Clause permitted regulation of even non-economic activity, as long as the activity had a “substantial economic effect” on interstate commerce. See NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 (1937).   

Recently, however, the conservative Supreme Court has interpreted the Commerce Clause more strictly, striking down laws that would have previously been permitted under the Commerce Clause. In the landmark National Federal of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012), better known as the first Obamacare decision, the Supreme Court held that Congress could not require that individuals purchase health insurance, at least under the Commerce Clause. Id. The Court reasoned that requiring the purchase of health insurance was not the regulation of commercial activity, but rather, the regulation of commercial inactivity, and, accordingly, was not permissible under the Commerce Clause. Id.

The Court, though, did find that Congress had the authority under its taxing power to tax individuals that failed to purchase health insurance pursuant to the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and it is this authority that would likely be relied upon if the federal government were to pursue a mandatory vaccination program. Under the current makeup of the Supreme Court, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett now replacing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it is unclear whether the Court in 2021 would come to the same conclusion as it did in 2012.

Mandating Vaccines in the Current Political Climate

Of course, none of this is to suggest that the either the federal government or state governments will absolutely institute mandatory vaccinations programs for the COVID-19 vaccines. Although the states almost certainly do, and the federal government may, have the authority to pass these types of public health laws from a legal perspective, they may be politically unviable.

So far, governing authorities have been hesitant to even mandate the wearing of masks for fear of political backlash. It is far more likely that the state and federal governments will exhaust all efforts to persuade citizens to voluntarily take the vaccine before passing laws perceived to be intrusive. However, if the government’s powers of persuasion are not effective in getting the vaccination rates high enough to reach herd immunity levels, more drastic measures could be taken.


[1] The vaccines of both Pfizer and Moderna require two doses, taken several weeks apart, to be effective.