• When Claimant with Residual Disability Who Seeks to Return to Light-Duty Job, Suffers Non-Work-Related Total Disability and Not Able to Work at All, Employer is Not Obligated to Reinstate Benefits and Need Not Show Continuing Availability of Suitable Work
  • October 21, 2013 | Author: Francis X. Wickersham
  • Law Firm: Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C. - King Of Prussia Office
  • Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) v. WCAB (Cunningham); 2045 C.D. 2011; filed 7/12/13; Judge McCullough

    In June 1996, while working under permanent, light-duty restrictions, the claimant suffered a work injury to his right knee. The claimant filed a claim petition, and benefits were awarded after a Workers’ Compensation Judge granted the petition. Shortly after the June 1996 injury, the claimant returned to his pre-injury, light-duty job. However, in July of 1996, the claimant was involved in a non-work-related car accident, suffering injuries to his left knee, low back and left hand. Again, the claimant went out of work and again returned to his light-duty job in April of 1997. On December 24, 1998, the claimant was in a second non-work-related accident, suffering injuries to his left knee, low back, left hand and left shoulder. During the week of December 26, 1998, the claimant unsuccessfully tried a brief return to work and has not returned to work in any capacity since then.

    The employer filed a petition to modify/suspend the claimant’s benefits, alleging that, but for his December 1998 non-work-related injuries, the claimant was able to return to work as of November 9, 2005. The Workers’ Compensation Judge concluded that the employer met its burden of proving that the claimant’s work-related injury had resolved to the point that he could perform sedentary work but for the non-work-related injuries he suffered in the motor vehicle accidents. The judge found that the claimant’s non-work-related injuries rendered him incapable of all possible work activity and suspended the claimant’s benefits.

    The claimant appealed the suspension of his benefits to the Appeal Board. The Board reversed the decision of the judge. According to the Board, because the employer failed to establish the availability of a job equal to, or greater than, the claimant’s pre-injury average weekly wage, the suspension was not warranted.

    The employer appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which reversed the Board’s decision. In doing so, the court was guided by the Supreme Court’s decision in Schneider, Inc. v. WCAB, 650 Pa. 608, 747 A.2d 845 (2000), wherein the Court held that the employer was not required to show job availability where a claimant was totally disabled by non-work-related conditions. In Schneider, after the claimant suffered work-related injuries to his head and neck, he was involved in a non-work-related incident, causing severe brain damage and paralysis, leaving him permanently unable to work in any capacity. The Court further held that, although there was no obligation on the part of the employer to show job availability in cases like this, the employer was still required to provide the claimant with a Notice of Ability to Return to Work, as required by §306 (b) (3) of the Act.