Any time one suffers a work-related injury, the hope is that ultimately the person injured will be able to return to work – if possible in the same or a similar capacity. But in most common law scenarios, a return to work triggers a rebuttable presumption the worker has not permanently suffered a loss in earning capacity for disability benefits purposes.
A rebuttable presumption made by the court (or other oversight body) is to be taken as true unless someone comes forward to contest and prove otherwise.
In the recent case of Hudspeth Regional v. Mitchell, the argument was that the plaintiff, who suffered a fall at work but ultimately returned to the same position, was not entitled to certain workers’ compensation benefits because there was a rebuttable presumption – based on her return to work – that she had not suffered a loss of earning capacity. Since she failed to rebut this presumption (because the courts hadn’t required her to do so), she hadn’t proven her case, the defendant/employer argued. The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed.
According to court records, the plaintiff worked as a registered nurse supervisor at a medical center in Mississippi, where she suffered a fall at work that resulted in a back injury. She went to a nearby emergency room for treatment and also received follow-up treatment from several doctors. Six weeks later, the plaintiff returned to work at the very same position, reportedly carrying out all the same duties pertinent to her job that she did prior to the work accident.
Half a year later, she was fired from her job for causes unrelated to her injury. (She reportedly had a history of lateness and also failed to examine a patient when a supervisor requested she do so.)
After this, the doctor treating her referred her for a functional capacity evaluation, which is done when one reaches maximum medical improvement. This is considered the best a person will get, and it comes with a long-term disability rating. Following this evaluation, the plaintiff was given a 3 percent permanent partial impairment rating to her whole body. A physical therapist who had been working with her opined she could perform sedentary work, but she shouldn’t lift any weight that was more than 20 pounds, or more than 15 pounds if it was overhead. The therapist also recommended she avoid standing for long periods.
The plaintiff filed a petition to meet with the state workers’ compensation commission. A single administrative law judge held the plaintiff’s injury resulted in a total loss of earning capacity and awarded her long-term disability benefits. This ruling was affirmed later, by both the full commission and then a divided Court of Appeals.
The case then went before the state high court. The justices first noted that in order to be due compensation under the state Workers’ Compensation Act, the employee’s work-related injury (rather than some other cause) has to affect the employee’s capacity to earn the wages that the worker was receiving at the time of the injury in the same or other employment. The court then looked at the case of Omnova Solutions Inc. v. Lipa, in which it was held that an injured employee who returns to work to receive the same or greater earnings as those prior to the injury creates a rebuttable presumption that no loss was suffered regarding his or her wage-earning capacity.
Here, the plaintiff indisputably suffered a work-related injury. However, after the work injury, she returned to the same position at the same or a higher rate of pay, and she continued to do so for months before being fired for unrelated causes. By failing to apply this presumption, the high court ruled, the ALJ committed a legal error. For this reason, the court reversed and remanded with instructions to apply this standard.
This doesn’t mean the plaintiff won’t be able to collect compensation. However, it does mean that she bears the burden of proof moving forward.
Contact the Carolina workers’ compensation lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Hudspeth Regional v. Mitchell, Oct. 20, 2016, Mississippi Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Vasquez v. American Cas. Co. of Reading – Eligibility for Employer’s UIM Coverage, Oct. 26, 2016, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Attorney Blog