The term “collateral estoppel” essentially means that once an issue is fully litigated, it cannot be litigated again. The primary example of this concept, as it applies to PA workers’ compensation, is the Weney case. Whenever we have seen the use of “collateral estoppel” in Pennsylvania workers’ comp, however, we have seen it used to the detriment of the injured worker. For once, however, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania used this concept to benefit the injured worker.
In Channellock, Inc. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), the Claimant suffered an annular tear and a herniated disk at the L5-S1 level at work in 2001. The injured worker was offered a “no work” job at the employer, which he accepted (a “no work” job is literally a job where the injured worker reports to the employer to do nothing; this is a frequent tool used by devious employers, as was attempted here, to subvert the workers’ comp process). Due to his pain medications, and the inactivity inherent in a “no work” job, Claimant fell asleep and was promptly terminated.
Litigation ensued before a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ). A decision was rendered by the WCJ, denying a Petition for Termination (since the injured worker was not found to be fully recovered) and granting a Petition for Reinstatement (finding that “the no duty position was not within Claimant’s capabilities because Claimant had difficulty staying awake due to his prescribed medication”).
Subsequently, a “no work” job was offered again, albeit in a different location. Also, the discipline system was changed, such that the injured worker would only be terminated if he fell asleep four times. When the injured worker did not continue to work in this position, the workers’ comp insurance carrier filed a Petition for Suspension (also pending was a Petition for Termination, a Petition for Reinstatement and a Petition for Penalties, though these are not relevant to our discussion).
Citing Weney, in the opposite way it was initially used, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania found the insurance carrier was precluded from litigating whether the “no work” job was available to the injured worker, since that issue had already been decided. In other words, the insurance carrier was collaterally estopped from making this argument. The Court was not persuaded that the job was in a different location (since it remained a “no work job”), that the discipline system changed (the injured worker still was rendered sleepy by his medication and still could be terminated for sleeping on the job), or that this was a new job offer (again, same basic “job”). The Court found that the essential issue was the same in both cases:
“Whether Claimant who continued to have a problem staying awake due to the medications to treat the work-related injury and whether falling asleep could result in disciplinary action taken against Claimant up to and including termination.”
We must admit a certain amount of satisfaction in the Weney case being used as a shield for an injured worker, rather than the sword in the back, as we often see. There are times, it would seem, when justice does prevail.