Poole v. University of North Carolina – Vocational Rehabilitation Often Mandated

Individuals who are awarded workers’ compensation benefits must understand that this money often comes with certain requirements they must meet in order to continue collecting.
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Among one of the more common requirements is the one to attend vocational rehabilitation services. This is a state-run organization, operated under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services, that offers training, education, counseling, transportation and job placement for individuals who have suffered a disabling work injury. The idea is to minimize the amount of time the worker receives benefits, and also to help the worker find sustainable employment, even if he or she can no longer do the work they once did.

Asheville workers’ compensation lawyers understand that not all injured workers are going to benefit from such a service, especially when doctors have offered opinions indicating the worker may never be employable again. Even so, a refusal to participate, barring a medically-solid reason, could be grounds for revocation of benefits.

The recent case of Poole v. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill before the North Carolina Court of Appeals is a good example of this.

The appellate held that where the worker’s declaration of willingness to continue vocational rehabilitation is supported by evidence deemed credible by the state’s industrial commission, the finding will stand.

This case started way back in 1992, when the plaintiff, an employee of the university, seriously hurt his back while moving tables. The employer agreed to pay total disability benefits, medical care and other benefits, including vocational rehabilitation, relating to the back injury.

Six years later, the employer filed paperwork to terminate or suspend the benefits, as the worker failed to cooperate with the directives of vocational rehabilitation services. The form was granted, and the benefits were suspended until the worker agreed to “make a proper showing” of his willingness to comply with reasonable rehabilitation directives.

Then in 2005, the worker filed a form seeking treatment for pain management, which the employer accepted. In 2007, the plaintiff filed a request for rehearing, asserting he had ongoing disability as a result of the injury, as well as a change in his medical condition.

In 2010, the a single commissioner dismissed the claim, on the grounds that it hadn’t been filed in a timely manner, thereby prejudicing the employer. In 2012, the full commission re-opened the case and remanded it for rehearing, after which the earlier ruling was reversed and his benefits were reinstated.

The employer appealed. The employer argued it was not enough that the worker had agreed to comply with vocational services. He needed to actually show proof that he was compliant.

However, the appellate court disagreed, noting the employer hadn’t made any specific requests with regard to the worker’s vocational rehabilitation, and the worker wasn’t required to make that initiative on his own.

The commission noted that a claimant who refuses rehabilitation is barred from compensation until that refusal ceases, per the 1991 ruling in Sanhueza v.
Liberty Steel Erectors
. Even though in this case the plaintiff’s doctors had issued an opinion indicating they did not believe he would ever be able to return to work, they did find vocational rehabilitation services would proactively benefit him.

While simple declarations of willingness to comply may not be sufficient in some cases, here, it was the standard set forth by the commission, and was therefore sufficient.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Poole v. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, July 15, 2014, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries
Vicente Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co.: Workers’ Compensation and Undocumented Workers, June 8, 2014, Asheville Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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