In North Carolina workers’ compensation cases, there are sometimes instances in which a work-related injury has rendered an individual unable to work in his or her previous job and also makes it futile to even consider a job search. This would of course include situations in which a person is profoundly and permanently injured. However, futility in finding another job could also be a result of a number of different factors that affect one’s employability. This could include factors like age, education, communication skills, and previous work experience.
The purported futility of any further job search efforts was central to the recent North Carolina Court of Appeals case of Neckles v. Teeter.
According to court records, the plaintiff is a 68-year-old man who moved to the U.S. from the Caribbean island nation of Grenada. Although he completed two years of college in his native country, he did not graduate, and since his 1989 arrival in the U.S., he had only worked as a meat cutter for various employers. He worked for the defendant employer starting in 2007.
The job required the plaintiff to regularly move and lift up to 100 pounds and also to be able to reach up to 72 inches. It was also necessary sometimes to crouch, kneel, balance, stoop, and climb.
In mid-2009, the plaintiff suffered an injury to his lower back, right hip, and right arm and leg while he was trying to move a box of meat to the top of a stack. An MRI taken soon thereafter revealed a lower back fracture, multilevel disc bulging, and spinal and foraminal stenosis. The plaintiff’s employer and workers’ compensation insurer conceded the plaintiff suffered a compensable injury and initiated payments for temporary total disability.
About eight months later, the plaintiff underwent a functional capacity evaluation, in which it was concluded he couldn’t go back to his job as a meat cutter, but he was capable of a job that required light physical demands. In the next month, although the plaintiff had continued pain and weakness, he was deemed by his doctor to have reached maximum medical improvement. In the years that followed, he continued to need treatment and also required a cane to walk.
In the fall of 2011, the defendant requested that the plaintiff meet with a vocational rehabilitation specialist, who would assess the worker’s current vocational potential. The specialist, after interviewing the plaintiff and reviewing the plaintiff’s record, determined it would be difficult for the plaintiff to get into any job, and he didn’t do any further tests.
Three years later, the defendant employer filed a form alleging the plaintiff was no longer disabled. The plaintiff disputed this, and a hearing was held. The deputy commissioner ruled the plaintiff was still entitled to temporary total disability benefits and coverage of all related medical expenses, owing to his 2009 work injury. The deputy commissioner explained this was because of his age, education, work experience, work restrictions for the compensable injury, other unrelated health conditions (i.e., diabetes, gout, and angina), and trouble communicating (a thick accent that made it very difficult to understand him).
The case then went to the commission in January 2016, with the commission ruling the plaintiff was entitled to continued coverage of medical expenses but was no longer entitled to receive TTD benefits because he hadn’t proven it was futile for him to look for work.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals disagreed. It wasn’t solely that the plaintiff had the ability to do some light lifting. The justices ruled it was important to weigh the totality of the evidence. Here, the commission weighed the vocational expert’s assertion that finding a job would be “difficult” for the plaintiff, noting that “difficult” did not amount to “futile.” However, the appeals court noted the commission hadn’t weighed the totality of the evidence. Specifically, the plaintiff was 68 years old, had a limited education, had very narrow work experience, had difficulty reading, had no real computer knowledge, had a very thick accent that made it difficult to understand him, and suffered from a number of other health problems in addition to those incurred as a result of his work injury.
Therefore, the court ruled, the plaintiff should receive ongoing TTD benefits and coverage of medical expenses.
Contact the Carolina workers’ compensation lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Neckles v. Teeter, Dec. 30, 2016, North Carolina Court of Appeals
More Blog Entries:
BLS: Fatal Workplace Injuries Up in 2015, Jan. 13, 2017, Asheville Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog