In PA, Applying for Social Security Retirement Benefits Can Stop Workers’ Compensation Benefits

As discussed in previous blog entries, for several years now, the Courts in PA have caused decisions by Pennsylvania’s injured workers to have drastic consequences beyond what an injured worker could reasonably expect.

Because of the decision in Pennsylvania State University v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Hensal), rendered by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in 2008, the simple act of filing for a pension can easily lead to a loss of workers’ comp benefits for an injured worker.

Well, don’t look now, but Commonwealth Court has struck again. Now, an injured worker who testified credibly that he is NOT retired, that he had NOT filed for a retirement pension from his employer (even though one was available), that he would go back to work if a job was available within his physical restrictions and that he filed for Social Security Retirement benefits only after the workers’ comp insurance carrier refused to reinstate his benefits, has been found by the Court to have voluntarily removed himself from the labor market, ending his entitlement to PA workers’ compensation indemnity (wage loss) benefits.

In this decision, Duferco Farrell Corp. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Zuhosky), the injured worker suffered an injury to his knee in March, 2003. He eventually went back to work, at a modified duty job, until January 27, 2007, when he stopped working due to a worsening of his condition (and had a total knee replacement performed on January 31, 2007).

The workers’ compensation insurance carrier, in their infinite wisdom, denied a request to reinstate workers’ comp benefits. Having no other source of income at that point, and being totally disabled, on the advice of his attorney, Claimant applied for Social Security Retirement (SSR) benefits. Claimant also filed a Petition to Reinstate his workers’ comp benefits, as of January 27, 2007, when he again became totally disabled by the work injury.

In litigating the Petition for Reinstatement, Claimant presented evidence from not only his own treating doctor, but also from the Independent Medical Examiner retained by the workers’ comp insurance carrier. Both doctors agreed the work injury aggravated a pre-existing condition in the knee, resulting in the need for the total knee replacement. The workers’ compensation insurance company presented no evidence.

The Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted the Petition for Reinstatement, and also awarded unreasonable contest attorney fees against the insurance carrier. On appeal, the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) affirmed, agreeing with the WCJ that the workers’ comp insurance carrier failed to prove the injured worker voluntarily removed himself from the labor market, and that no reasonable contest was shown. Logic and justice prevailed . . . for awhile.

Upon further appeal, the Commonwealth Court reversed. The scope of appeal essentially is whether the WCJ, and/or the WCAB, committed an error of law (The WCJ is the ultimate Finder of Fact, and such findings, if supported by sufficient evidence, should not be disturbed upon appeal). Regardless, the Court found that Mr. Zuhosky voluntarily withdrew from the labor market, so the granting of the Reinstatement Petition was in error.

The Court based its decision on the fact Claimant testified that he would “like to retire” (Who wouldn’t?). Claimant did NOT testify that he has retired. Mr. Zuhosky did file for SSR benefits, and did take a pension from his union (but not his employer). The Court found that the actions of Mr. Zuhosky triggered the switch of burdens of proof, as noted in the Hensal case. To win, then, Mr. Zuhosky had to demonstrate that he was actively seeking employment or that he was disabled from all employment by his injury. Since he failed to prove either, the Court found the Petition for Reinstatement could not be granted. Having conducted a seminar on this very issue, I can safely say this is a difficult standard to meet.

A strong dissent, authored by Senior Judge Friedman, was written both logically and clearly, observing that SSR was only taken after reinstatement was refused, that there was no evidence when the union pension was taken, that Mr. Zuhosky did not take a pension from his employer (and that he testified credibly that he would return to work if possible), and that Mr. Zuhosky actually did try to go back to work briefly after the surgery. Based on all of this, Judge Friedman felt the “voluntary” withdrawal from the labor market was anything but “voluntary.”

In my view, the opinion of Judge Friedman, while not the majority, certainly reflects the truth and reality of the world in today’s economy. The majority’s view would allow the injured worker to choose between starving his or her family or having workers’ compensation benefits. The law in Pennsylvania was never intended to present an injured worker with such a cruel choice.