There are some cases in which an employee’s injury is so severe that he or she cannot continue on in his or her previous job. If there is no other alternative employment within the company, the worker may be terminated by the company. In these cases, workers must be justly compensated for ongoing disability benefits.
However, when a worker is fired after suffering a compensable injury for reasons unrelated to that injury, benefits may be terminated. In order to determine whether this is the case, courts in North Carolina apply the Seagraves test, so named for the 1996 case of Seagraves v. The Austin Company of Greensboro. As explained by the North Carolina Supreme Court, in order to prohibit payment of benefits, an employer has to demonstrate that:
- Employee was terminated for misconduct;
- The same misconduct would have resulted in termination of a nondisabled employee;
- Termination was unrelated to employee’s compensable injury.
If an employer can demonstrate all this, it sets the foundation for employer to show employee constructively refused to perform suitable work, which would bar benefits for lost earnings. The exception would be if worker can then show he or she is unable to find or hold other employment at a comparable wage earned prior to the injury as a direct result of the work-related disability.
This issue came up recently in the North Carolina Court of Appeals case of Vogel v. Food Lion. According to court records, 53-year-old plaintiff has a master’s degree in business administration and started working for employer in 2003 as a store manager. He was eventually promoted to district manager. He received satisfactory reviews in the beginning, but reviews starting in 2011 began to indicate the company wasn’t satisfied with his performance. Other employees didn’t feel valued or trusted. They indicated plaintiff was not approachable and failed to address their needs. He received a verbal counseling. He then received a poor annual review.
Six months later, when things didn’t improve, plaintiff’s supervisor had decided plaintiff should be discharged from his position. She scheduled a meeting for June 11 to inform him of this. The day before the meeting, however, plaintiff suffered a lower back injury while demonstrating cleaning techniques to an employee. He was released by a doctor from work from the date of that incident until early August due to the injury. The meeting didn’t take place.
He underwent physical therapy and was released with restrictions back to work in August, when employer offered plaintiff a temporary light duty roll with sedentary work. He continued this for a month, at which time he met with his supervisor regarding the verbal counseling. He was terminated from his position and given 30 days to find another job within the company. He was not able to do so. He was given 10 weeks of severance pay.
Two months later, he was determined by doctors to have reached maximum medical improvement with 0 percent permanent partial disability rating. He was released to work without restrictions.
In his workers’ compensation claim, no one disputed that his benefits from June through August were compensable. The issue was whether he should be able to collect benefits from August through November, when he was deemed no longer disabled.
The appeals court indicated the state workers’ compensation commission erred in two respects. First, it didn’t determine whether comparable employment existed in a competitive job market at a comparative wage level – and this is necessary to determine plaintiff’s earning capacity during the time he returned to light duty. Second, while the commission found defendants met their burden with respect to the Seagraves test, it made no finding regarding whether plaintiff was able to find or hold other employment at a comparable wage due to his injury. The burden of proof was on plaintiff to show this before awarding him benefits, and, the appeals court determined, he hadn’t done that.
So the earlier award of benefits is reversed and the case remanded back to the commission for further findings of fact.
If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
Vogel v. Food Lion, Nov. 3, 2015, North Carolina Court of Appeals
More Blog Entries:
Workers In North Carolina Injured in the Name of Low Cost Chicken, Nov. 13, 2015, Greensboro Workers’ Compensation Attorney Blog