The Case

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court clarified in a recent ruling, City of Pittsburgh v. WCAB (Robinson), No. 18 WAP 2011, the voluntary retirement rule as applied to workers’ compensation benefits. Prior to this ruling, the Court instituted a presumption standard that when an injured employee accepted a pension, even a disability pension, it was presumed the employee left the workforce voluntarily and therefore the employers was entitled to a suspension of workers’ compensation benefits.

In the City of Pittsburgh v. WCAB, an injured worker took a disability pension because she was unable to perform her pre-injury job as an active duty police officer. Despite the fact that the injured worker registered with the Pennsylvania Job Center, after obtaining the disability pension, the employer promptly filed a Suspension Petition alleging that the injured worker voluntarily withdrew from the workforce because she took the disability pension.

The Ruling

The Court logically explained that even though the injured worker took the disability pension, it was not to be presumed that she voluntarily withdrew from the entire workforce.

“Claimant did not simply retire to an able-bodied pension; she was entitled to a disability pension because of her prior service and work-related condition which disabled her from her time-of-injury job.  53 P.S. 23564(a)  At most, Claimant’s approved receipt of a disability pension necessarily shows that she could not perform her time-of-injury position; it does not necessarily follow that she, and all workers similarly situated to her, decided to forgo all employment.” City of Pittsburgh v. WCAB (Robinson), No. 18 WAP 2011, p. 19.

Essentially, the Court rejected the presumption standard and placed the initial burden of proof for the Suspension Petition back on the employer.  Here is the Court’s  new rule;

“Where the employer challenges the entitlement to continuing compensation on grounds that the claimant has removed himself or herself from the general workforce by retiring, the employer has the burden of proving that the claimant has voluntarily left the workforce. There is no presumption of retirement arising from the fact that a claimant seeks or accepts a pension, much less a disability pension; rather the workers’ acceptance of a pension entitles the employer only to a permissive inference that claimant has retired. Such an inference, if drawn, is not on its own sufficient evidence to establish that the worker has retired – the inference must be considered in the context of the totality of the circumstances.” Id. at 26-27

What To Take Away From This Case

The Court handed injured workers a victory in this decision. Often in my practice, particularly with older workers, I see employees injured at work with back and shoulder injuries in which, even after surgery, they are unable to physically perform their pre-injury job. The work injury has changed them permanently. To help them get along financially, they have certain benefits like pensions and disability pensions that are provided as fringe benefits. By taking these benefits, many employees are not saying they can’t ever work again and are therefore retiring.

In fact, many want to continue working in a lighter duty job that will not further harm or cause them pain. The only inference that can be drawn in these circumstances is the fact the employees is taking the pension because they are no longer able to perform the pre-injury job. The Court recognized that important fact and scaled back the prior harsh voluntary retirement rule.

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