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City of Pittsburgh v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Robinson)- Totality Of The Circumstances And Voluntary Retirement

On March 25, 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed a Commonwealth Court ruling that in a petition to suspend compensation benefits upon an alleged voluntary withdrawal from the workforce, the employer bears the burden of showing by the totality of the circumstances that the claimant has chosen not to return to the workforce.

The Employer maintained that Claimant’s application for and receipt of pension disability benefits after her work-related injury demonstrated that she had retired. It argued that the seminal cases of Henderson and Republic Steel (citations omitted) established a presumption that a claimant who separates from employment and receives a pension has voluntarily withdrawn from the workforce- and therefore, the indemnity benefits should cease. Employer argued that a pension, by definition, is a benefit paid based upon retirement (citing Black’s Law Dictionary). The Supreme Court declined to adopt the extra-statutory presumption of retirement urged by Employer.  The Court recognized that it is not self evident, or even logical, to presume from the mere fact that a a claimant accepts a pension that claimant has voluntarily withdrawn from the workforce- as this specific case demonstrates that Claimant did not simply retire to an able-bodied pension, but was entitled to a disability pension because of her prior service and a work-related condition which disabled her from her time-of-injury job. In a well-reasoned statement, the Court said, “At most, Claimant’s approved receipt of a disability pension necessarily shows that she could not perform her time-of-injury position; it does not necessarily follow that she, and all workers similarly situated to her, decided to forgo all employment”.  The Court went on to note that the receipt of a disability pension is not devoid of evidentiary weight; it may well be probative of a claimant’s desire to retire. But it is just one fact of many possible probative facts which must be analyzed.

Employer tried to assert that the Henderson case established a rebuttable presumption that a claimant has retired if the claimant accepts any type of pension. The Court rejected and went on the discuss Henderson, Dugan, and a host of other cases. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that the Commowealth Court plurality properly evaluated Henderson insofar as it determined that the Workers’ Compensation Judge must consider other evidence in addition to the claimant’s simple receipt of a pension to determine whether an injured worker has actually retired from the workforce totally.

Importantly, if the employer does produce sufficient evidence to support a finding that the claimant has voluntarily left the workforce, then the burden shifts to the claimant to show that there in fact has been a compensable loss of earning power.

In justifying its holding, the Court reasoned, “Our holding will not impose a prohibitive burden on employers, nor does it subject employers to the unreasonable task of proving the claimant’s state of mind. Nor are we convinced that the dire consequences predicted by Employer- that claimants will impermissably benefit by supplementing their retirements with workers’ compensation benefits, and that the cost containment goal of the Act will be undermined- will result. If an employer is convinced that a claimant has retired, the employer may present evidence to establish that status. As the Commonwealth Court suggested, the employer may do so by objective facts, including the claimant’s receipt of a pension, the claimant’s own statement relating to voluntary withdrawal from the workforce, and the claimant’s efforts or non-efforts to seek employment.”

What is the moral of the story for injured workers? First, this is a good, well reasoned Decision by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The mere receipt of a disability pension shouldn’t dicate the outcome and a totality approach leaves flexibility to analyze entire fact patterns, which will result in fairer outcomes dictated by the specific facts of each case. As the Court said, “the judicial branch, faced with discrete factual patterns in individually-contested cases, is not particularly suited to make such empirical judgments to govern an entire set of cases.” It is strongly advised that injured workers speak to an experienced PA Work Comp Lawyer before applying for any type of benefits so that the attorney can analyze how, if at all, the application and/or receipt of such benefits will impact his/her case.

Injured workers are encouraged to speak with an experienced Pennsylvania Work Comp Lawyer to analyze their specific situations whether it involves a pension disability or not. I am available 7 days a week for injured workers across Pennsylvania for free consults. TOLL FREE (877) 560-7090, Local (215) 206-9068, or via email Michael@cardamonelaw.com

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