We have previously tackled the issue of reinstating benefits under the PA Workers’ Compensation Act. Then, though, we were focusing on how an injured worker can get his or her benefits reinstated. A recent case from the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania addresses an even stickier issue – whether the injured worker has a burden to demonstrate continuing disability after the reinstatement. As you have probably learned by now, the answer is not black and white.
In Brian Soja v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Hillis-Carnes Engineering Associates), the Court affirmed the decision of a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ), which reinstated benefits for a period of time, before ordering such benefits suspended. Here, the injured worker returned to gainful employment after a 2005 work injury, causing his benefits to be suspended. When he had a recurrence of his symptoms, again rendering him disabled, he filed a Petition for Reinstatement, as of November 1, 2006.
In the ensuing litigation before the WCJ, the injured worker testified three different times, the last of which was on April 24, 2008. At that time, he testified that he had trouble standing or walking, and he required the use of a cane. The workers’ compensation insurance carrier subsequently offered a surveillance tape of the injured worker, taken on that very day he testified on April 24, 2008. Here, the injured worker was seen limping and using a cane as he entered the hearing office. Later that day, though, he was seen walking freely, without the need for a cane, bending, twisting and otherwise acting in direct contrast to his presentation to the WCJ.
The WCJ granted the Petition for Reinstatement as of November 1, 2006, since the injured worker proved his symptoms recurred. However, the WCJ then ordered the benefits suspended as of April 24, 2008, based solely on the surveillance tape. The WCJ found the testimony of the injured worker not credible as to his condition after that date.
Claimant filed an appeal with the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), arguing first that his workers’ compensation benefits could not be suspended solely on the basis of surveillance evidence, and second that once he proved a right to a reinstatement of benefits, the burden for suspension fell to the workers’ comp insurance carrier. The WCAB was unmoved by the injured worker’s arguments and affirmed the decision of the WCJ. Further appeal was then filed with the Commonwealth Court of PA.
There, the Court addressed when surveillance evidence could support a suspension of benefits:
“In sum, where an employer files a petition to reduce a claimant’s benefits from total to partial disability, the employer has the burden of proof. In that situation, a video is inadequate evidence standing alone. Rather, the video must be examined by a physician or vocational specialist who can offer evidence of what kind of jobs the claimant can do, other than his pre-injury job. Likewise, where the employer has filed a termination or suspension petition, a video will not be sufficient to satisfy the employer’s burden of proof.”
When, as here, the injured worker bears the burden of proof, the role of surveillance evidence depends on the basis for the reinstatement. Because the claimant here alleged a reinstatement based on a recurrence of his symptoms, the claimant retained the burden to prove continuing disability. Thus, the WCJ correctly, based on his findings of fact, suspended the benefits based on the surveillance.
The Court distinguished a Petition for Reinstatement based on the injured worker’s loss of a light duty job; in that case, the workers’ comp insurance carrier bears the burden and surveillance evidence alone cannot support a suspension of benefits.