Friday, January 20, 2006

Commonwealth Court Excuses Employer From Performing Labor Market Survey To Get Suspension Upon Claimant's Move Out Of United States

The Commonwealth Court issued its decision in M. Blong v. WCAB (Fluid Containment, et al.), a case I posted on in connection with the Supreme Court's grant of appeal in Motor Coils MFG/WABTEC, v. WCAB (Bish). These are cases where the claimant was released to return to work with restrictions, but the Claimant has moved out of state.

The twist in these cases is the amendment to Section 306(b)(2) that provides when the Claimant does not reside in the Commonwealth, earning power can be shown using a labor market survey in the usual employment area where the injury occurred. In both of these cases the Employer could have filed for modification or suspension based on a labor market survey of jobs in Pennsylvania.

In Bish, the Employer made a job available at the Employer's facility. The Commonwealth Court denied modification or suspension because the job was not local to the Claimant as required by Kachinski. The Supreme Court granted the Employer's petition for appeal.

In Blong, no work was made available and there was no labor market survey. The Claimant had moved to New Zealand. In prior litigation I denied a petition for termination, but found the Claimant was capable of working with restrictions.

I suspended benefits based on Smith v. WCAB (Dunhill Temporary Systems), 725 A.2d 1285 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1999). In Smith the Claimant's benefits were suspended when he joined the Peace Corps and relocated to Africa. I was convinced a labor market survey in the Mt. Union, Pennsylvania area would be "irrelevant and fruitless" in the words of the Commonwealth Court in Smith. The Board and the Court affirmed.

The Commonwealth Court said the critical factor is removal. The Court held the Claimant was as removed from the workforce as he would be if he was incarcerated or retired. In effect, the Claimant "quit" the Mt. Union, Pennsylvania job market, so that the Employer doesn't have to show job availability.

Under Kachinski and Bish the Court could have analyzed whether the move was in good faith. There was no evidence it was not -- Mr. Blong's wife is a native of New Zealand.

In Bish, the Supreme Court may address how the amendment to Section 306(b)(2) and its interaction with Smith affects the Kachinski requirement that available work must be local to a claimant who has moved out of state in good faith. Employers may not be excused from conducting the labor market survey in all of these cases. The Constitutional right to travel as stated in Shapiro v Thompson, 394 U.S. 618 (1969) may even be implicated.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Claimant Fails to Show Cause Why His Benefits Should Not Be Suspended

In my post on County of Allegheny (Department of Public Works) v. WCAB (Weis) I indicated the Commonwealth Court's holding allows an employer to file against a claimant a rule to show cause why the claimant's benefits should not be suspended. The employer filed one of these in E. Hepler v. WCAB (Penn Champ/Bissel, Inc.).

The scenario arises when a claimant takes a disability retirement. If a physician has released the claimant to any level of work, the employer can file a rule on the claimant to show cause why the claimant's benefits should not be suspended. This is done by filing a modification/suspension petition alleging the claimant has voluntarily removed himself or herself from the workforce.

This petition was filed in the Hepler case. The WCJ found the claimant was forced into retirement by the work injury and denied suspension, but the Board reversed based on the Weis case. The Commonwealth Court affirmed, finding the Weis case controls. The Commonwealth Court stated it is the claimant's burden in this case to show the claimant has not voluntarily withdrawn from the entire labor market and is open to employment within the claimant's physical capabilities.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Monday, January 09, 2006

Commonwealth Court Holds Employer is Responsible for Repair and Replacement of Orthopedic Appliances Before They Fail

In D. Zuback v. WCAB (Paradise Valley Enterprise Lumber Co.) , the Claimant had stair glides installed after his injury, which invloved the loss of an arm and a leg. When the stair glides became worn out, the Employer and Insurnce Carrier denied repair or replacement of the equipment under Bombay v. Workmen’s Compensation Appeal Board (South Erie Heating Co.), 572 A.2d 248 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1990). In that case, reasonable home modifications were made and additional home modifications were denied.

The stair guides were working, although wear and tear was evident in all parts of the mechanical operation. It was perhaps on this basis that the WCJ and Board denied the Claimant's request for repair or replacement. The Court, however, reversed and held the Employer and Insurer are responsible to (in this case) replace the stair glides before they fail as a reasonable home modification.

Friday, January 06, 2006

WCJ May Accept Self-Employment Earnings On Tax Return Over Vocational Expert Testimony

In Acme Markets, Inc. v. WCAB (Brown), the Commonwealth Court reviewed a WCJ's decision wherein the WCJ accepted the Claimant's statement of his self-employment income as reflected on his tax return, after deductions. The Employer argued the Claimant's gross income was a more accurate measure of his earning power. The Claimant had taken deductions for business expenses and a salary for his wife for secretarial and bookkeeping services.

The WCJ rejected the testimony of the Employer's vocational consultant as to average earnings of appraisers (the Claimant's self-employed occupation) secretaries and bookkeepers. The Court highlighted the reasons given by the WCJ for rejecting this testimony and found the WCJ's decision was reasoned. The Court affirmed.

PCRB Requests 8.5% Rate Reduction

The Pennsylvania Compensation Rating Bureau requested an average 8.5% reduction in loss cost level. The reduction is attributed to a decreasing number of claims and a moderation of the rate of increasing severity of the claims that are filed. The Pittsburgh Business Times published an in depth article, which also mentions there are more insurers writing policies in Pennsylvania and more competition over rates.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Supreme Court Affirms Denial of Supersedeas Reimbursement in Case of Refusal of Reasonable Medical Treatment

In Department of Labor & Industry v. WCAB (Excel Logistics), the employer won a petition for suspension alleging the claimant's refusal to undergo reasonable medical treatment. However, the employer's petition for supersedeas reimbursement was denied because the case did not involve a request for modification, suspension or termination under Section 413 or 430 of the Act.

The Commonwealth Court and Supreme Court held a forfeiture of benefits under Section 306(f.1)(8) is not a change in disability status as provided for in Sections 413 and 430. Accordingly, Section 443 does not allow supersedeas fund reimbursement.

The Supreme Court did not comment on what remedy the employer has against the claimant who was found to have forfeited his benefits. In light of this decision, the logical remedy would be a credit against the reinstated benefits when the claimant elects the treatment at issue.