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Written by: Tracey Jones and Lindsay Underwood
The North Carolina Industrial Commission recently issued decisions in the first round of extended benefits cases, in which claimants are arguing entitlement to temporary total disability benefits past the 500-week cap on benefits. The cases have only been heard at the Deputy Commissioner level but provide insight into how this issue may be treated in the near future while we await inevitable appeals to the Full Commission and Court of Appeals. To obtain benefits beyond the 500-week cap, the claimant must request a hearing and present evidence supporting an allegation of a total loss of wage-earning capacity. The claimant is only eligible to request a hearing on this issue after 425 weeks have passed from the first date of disability. In the cases that have been decided so far, the decisions are split. What precedent is this setting for North Carolina and what can we learn from comparable jurisdictions who have analyzed similar statutory caps?
North Carolina: Statutory Language
N.C.G.S § 97-29(d) outlines the physical and mental requirements for showing an entitlement to extended benefits. As stated above, to obtain benefits beyond the 500-week cap, the claimant must request a hearing and present evidence supporting an allegation of a total loss of wage-earning capacity. It should be noted that there are certain claims which allow for automatic permanent and total disability benefits (i.e., catastrophic cases where a claimant loses two or more limbs). These claimants are entitled to lifetime benefits without findings concerning work ability or wage-earning capacity. Three other categories of claims create a rebuttable presumption of permanent and total disability benefits: (1) spinal injuries involving severe paralysis of both arms, both legs, or the trunk; (2) severe brain or closed-head injuries evidenced by severe and permanent motor or communication disturbances; and (3) second- or third-degree burns to 33% or more of the total body surface. Under these three categories of claims, if the employer can prove that the claimant is capable of suitable employment, then permanent and total disability would not be due and payable.
North Carolina: Deputy Commissioner Extended Benefits Decisions to Date
The first case, Milton Nobles v. North Carolina DHHS and CCMSI, was issued by Deputy Commissioner Robert Harris on January 25, 2021. The claimant in that case had no formal education outside of a high school diploma. He had work experience primarily as a health care technician. On June 26, 2011, the claimant was working for a hospital and sustained injuries while breaking up a fight, which ultimately resulted in headaches, PTSD, and depressive disorder. Dr. Thomas Gualtieri saw the claimant for a one-time neuropsychiatric evaluation in September 2011 and opined that claimant was malingering. He testified in line with the same at hearing. Claimant then began seeing Dr. Edwin Hoeper, a psychiatrist, on his own starting in May 2012. Claimant was still seeing him as of the date of the hearing. Dr. Hoeper provided testimony for claimant that his PTSD would never be cured and that his treatment could only improve his life slightly. Dr. Hoeper testified that claimant was permanently and totally disabled, and unemployable in any job. Dr. Manish Fozdar also conducted a one-time independent medical examination of claimant. Dr. Fozdar found claimant to be uncooperative and opined claimant was malingering. He opined any further mental health treatment was not related to his initial injury. Defendants also hired a rehabilitation professional, who produced a labor market survey and identified several positions she believed claimant could perform. The vocational expert never met with claimant. Deputy Commissioner Harris determined that claimant was entitled to extended benefits beyond the 500 weeks. The Deputy found that claimant had long-term chronic PTSD and chronic major depression and that he had satisfied the requirements under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-29(c), and had proven by the preponderance of the evidence in view of the entire record that he “has sustained a total loss of wage-earning capacity.” Dr. Hoeper’s testimony was given more weight than that of Dr. Fozdar, Dr. Gualtieri, or of the vocational rehabilitation professional. Thus, the claimant was entitled to extended benefits.
The next case, Mary Betts v. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and CCMSI, was issued on March 12, 2021, also by Deputy Commissioner Robert Harris. The claimant in that case graduated from high school and had CNA qualifications. She was a certified EMT, but her certifications had elapsed. The claimant worked as a health care technician and sustained her injury on August 12, 2011, while trying to restrain a combative patient. She sustained an injury to the ankle which resulted in multiple surgeries. The claimant had sedentary work restrictions, but the claimant’s treating physicians noted that even while performing sedentary work, she would still experience pain and swelling. Evidence showed that claimant remained involved with the Girls Scouts as a troop leader and summer camp director, volunteered with the PTA, cut her own grass, and did crafts. The vocational expert hired by claimant testified that claimant’s condition prevented her from being employable. The defendant also hired a vocational expert, who did not meet or speak with the claimant and did not contact any potential employers to discuss the claimant’s limitations. The Deputy Commissioner found the defendant’s vocational expert’s report to be too general and not tailored specifically to the claimant. Accordingly, the Deputy found that claimant had proven by the preponderance of the evidence in view of the entire record that she “has sustained a total loss of wage-earning capacity” because of this compensable long-term ankle condition. As such, claimant was entitled to extended compensation.
The third case, Michelle Brown v. NC Department of Public Instruction/Surry County Schools and Sedgwick, was issued on May 4, 2021, by Deputy Commissioner Jesse Tillman, III. The claimant was working as a teacher’s assistant at a high school on February 24, 2012, when she sustained an injury. The claimant worked for the county in multiple capacities in the past, including bus driver, substitute teacher, tennis coach, and band director, and had experience as a CNA, truck dispatcher, cashier, food preparation, a line worker, and phlebotomist. The claimant had permanent sedentary work restrictions. The claimant testified that she rode a motorcycle a few times during the summer, used a riding lawnmower, could walk one to two miles without issue, bowled twice a week, cared for multiple animals, and actively swam. A vocational expert provided a labor market survey that showed the availability of jobs within claimant’s work restrictions. The claimant presented no evidence that she continued to suffer a total loss of wage-earning capacity. The Deputy found that the claimant could at least work a part-time, sedentary job. The claimant’s claim for extended benefits was denied.
The last new case is Martin Strudivant v. North Carolina Department of Public Safety and CCMSI. The decision was issued by Deputy Commissioner Erin F. Taylor on May 5, 2021. The claimant sustained a compensable back injury on July 23, 2013. He was a high school graduate and had completed some post-graduate courses. He was certified to dive a forklift, had training in blueprint reading, and had CPR experience. The claimant had been on his church’s Board of Trustees since 2008. On the date of his injury, claimant was working transporting inmates. Four of the claimant’s physicians testified claimant could work and noted he could perform many of the essential functions of his prior job as a correctional officer. Defendants’ vocational expert also testified that claimant had capacity for work. It was determined that claimant could not show a “total loss” of wage-earning capacity; thus, claimant could not show entitlement to compensation beyond the 500-week cap on benefits.
As you can see, the four decisions issued to date have been a 50-50 split on entitlement to extended benefits. The cases are also very fact specific. What is clear from the decisions where entitlement to extended benefits has been denied is that the testimony from medical providers and a vocational rehabilitation specialist are necessary to support a finding that a claimant has wage earning capacity. Defendants should make sure to have good experts secured prior to the hearing, along with possible surveillance and a labor market survey tailored specifically to claimant. It is also helpful to have a complete picture of the claimant’s job history, educational background, and other activities outside of work or education, like the ability to exercise, do yardwork, or maintain positions on boards or as a volunteer.
As we continue to forecast how the Court of Appeals will address extended benefits, we anticipate they will look to other jurisdictions with similar statutory caps on benefits. South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia have similar statutes and their case law may provide guidance on how entitlement to extended benefits will be analyzed in North Carolina.
South Carolina places a 500-week limit on total disability. Their provision is stricter than North Carolina’s, and only allows extended benefits in very specific circumstances. S.C. Code Ann. § 42-9-10 establishes the cap on benefits. Any person determined to be totally and permanent disabled who, due to a compensable injury, is a paraplegic, a quadriplegic, or has suffered physical brain damage is not subject to the 500-week limitation and shall receive the benefits for life. There is no additional provision under the South Carolina limitation that allows for proving extended benefits beyond the 500-week cap, outside of those circumstances outlined above. The main disagreements in South Carolina case law arise due to arguments regarding the “level of severity” of brain injuries.
For example, in Crisp v. SouthCo., 401 S.C. 627, 738 S.E.2d 835 (2013), the claimant sustained injury to the head and right hand while working in construction. The claimant was ultimately diagnosed with a cognitive disorder. When the claim went to hearing, the claimant alleged injury to his head, brain, neck, back, right upper extremity, and psyche and sought continued temporary benefits and continued medical treatment, including treatment in a traumatic brain injury program. In the alternative, the claimant sought a finding that he was permanently and totally disabled and entitled to lifetime compensation benefits due to “physical brain damage.” The claimant argued to the Supreme Court that the presence of any physical brain injury, regardless of degree, entitles the claimant to benefits beyond the 500-week cap on benefits, per the statute. The Supreme Court, however, emphasized that “inherent in the requirement that the injury to the brain be severe is the factor that the worker is unable to return to suitable gainful employment.” Thus, the analysis hinges on whether the claimant with the diagnosed brain injury can return to work in light of the severity of the injury.
Based on this type of precedent in South Carolina, we can see how difficult it would be for a claimant to prove entitlement to extended benefits outside of the specific circumstances outlined above. Similar to North Carolina, testimony about educational background, work history, and expert testimony on the issue of functionality seem to be important factors in determining return to work options for claimants with a brain injury, which is one of the few conditions that allow benefits beyond the 500-week cap.
Virginia is another comparable jurisdiction. They have a 500-week cap, which is enforced even where the claimant continues to have work restrictions after receiving 500 weeks of indemnity/wage loss benefits and is unable to return to his pre-accident job or similar work. Va. Code Ann. § 65.2-503(c) outlines benefits for permanent and total incapacity. Under this code, a claimant may receive permanent total disability benefits when there is:(1) loss of both hands, both arms, both feet, both legs, both eyes, or any two of these body parts in the same work accident;(2) injury that results in total paralysis, as determined by the Virginial Commission on the medical evidence before it; or, (3) an injury to the brain that is traumatic and severe enough to render the worker permanently unemployable in gainful employment.
Most of the determinations of permanent and total incapacity in the Virginia system concern the level of permanent partial impairment ratings, coupled with the factors above. In practice, the courts consider wage-earning capacity and apply similar factors that the North Carolina courts will also be likely to consider.
In Georgia-Pac. Corp. v. Dancy, 24 Va. App. 430, 482 S.E.2d 867 (1997), aff'd, 255 Va. 248, 497 S.E.2d 133 (1998), the claimant’s legs were crushed by a conveyor while at work. The claimant attempted to return to work on one occasion but was sent home after a few hours. The claimant was seen by a company doctor who opined “I do not think that he is ever going to return to work under these circumstances.” Another physician completed a permanent disability assessment and assigned a 100% disability to one leg and a 15% disability to another leg. He was restricted to no standing longer than one hour, no sitting greater than two hours, and no climbing, stooping, crawling, or working on uneven ground. The record showed that the claimant had a tenth-grade education and had experience only in heavy physical labor jobs. A rehabilitation counselor testified that with the claimant’s limited education, time in the service, geographical location, and medical condition, there were some things he could do at least on a part time basis, providing there were no complications. For example, he could work at a nursery watering flowers, or work at a senior citizens’ home, or at a medical clinic preforming local driving tasks.
The lower courts determined the claimant was permanent and totally disabled. The Virginia Court of Appeals cited Va. Code § 65.2-503, noting that permanent and total incapacity shall be awarded where there is loss of both hands, both arms, both feet, both legs, both eyes, or any two thereof in the same accident. Even so, they stressed that in determining the extent of the loss of use of two members, the inability of the injured employee to engage in gainful employment is a proper element to consider. Virginia Oak Flooring Co. v. Chrisley, 195 Va. 850, 858–59, 80 S.E.2d 537, 542 (1954). The medical evidence showed a rated loss of 100% and 15%, respectively, of his left and right legs. The Commission had found, despite the testimony concerning the ability to return to work including that from the rehabilitation counselor, evidence in the record that the combination of the losses to the legs rendered the claimant unemployable. The Court of Appeals agreed, finding that the proper inquiry was whether the rated loss of use in the claimant’s legs rendered both legs unusable. The court affirmed the finding of permanent and total incapacity and awarded extended benefits.
Although the case is unpublished, Hopkins v. RDA, Inc., No. 1053-11-4, 2012 WL 48156 (Va. Ct. App. Jan. 10, 2012), further demonstrates how courts examine the permanent and total disability analysis. The claimant argued he was entitled to extended benefits. The courts first note that the claimant’s physicians disagreed about whether he was permanent and totally disabled and he saw a number of physicians. As to the ability to work, Dr. Harry Li, the authorized treating physician, testified claimant’s disability was total and permanent and that he should be removed from the work force. Dr. Zeena Doria, the authorized treating neurosurgeon stated that claimant was partially disabled due to his lumbar condition and stated claimant should receive permanent partial disability to the right leg only. Dr. Michael Shear stated that claimant was permanently and totally disabled and concluded he could not work for even an hour or so at a time. Dr. John Bruno, an orthopedic surgeon who conducted an independent evaluation, opined that claimant’s permanent partial impairment rating to his spine should be split to assign an 11.5% rating to each leg. Dr. Bruno reviewed claimant’s FCE and noted claimant was totally disabled from gainful employment. Dr. James Melisi and Dr. Charles Citron opined that there were no objective findings that claimant could not work in any capacity, and found claimant was not permanent or totally disabled. Dr. Anthony Debs specifically testified that claimant could work light duty or sedentary work. Dr. Debs also commented on “splitting the ratings” to each leg as suggested by Dr. Bruno, and disagreed, stating he would assign a rating to the right leg, but not the left leg. The Deputy Commissioner and Full Commission found claimant was not permanently and totally disabled. They gave little weight to Dr. Bruno’s ratings to both legs and noted that the evidence failed to demonstrate a loss of use of both lower extremities, and claimant failed to show he was unable to use his legs to any substantial degree in gainful employment.
The court agreed with the Commission’s findings that the claimant was not permanently and totally disabled, and the decision was affirmed. The court found that there was credible evidence to support the Commission’s findings. Specifically, Dr. Dorai found claimant had no impairment to the left leg and Drs. Melisi, Citron, and Debs all opined claimant was capable of light duty or sedentary work and was not permanently disabled.
It appears that the main difference between the Georgia and Hopkins decisions lie in the lack of high ratings to both legs, as well as the inability of the claimant to demonstrate that he was not capable of gainful employment due to said ratings. Though there was some evidence of the ability to work in the Georgia decision, the 100% rating to one leg, and additional rating to the other leg, outweighed that opinion. The Virginia case law again emphasizes the importance of obtaining credible expert physicians who will provide good evidence on disability and work ability. Further, it is interesting to note how the Virginia courts look to impairment ratings assigned to body parts as part of their analysis in determining entitlement to total disability.
Tennessee utilizes a 450-week cap on benefits similar to North Carolina. Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-102(15)(D) provides: “For injuries occurring on or after July 1, 2014, the maximum total benefit shall be four hundred fifty (450) weeks times one hundred percent (100%) of the state's average weekly wage… except in instances of permanent total disability.” Tennessee courts also appear to analyze the amount of a permanent impairment rating when considering entitlement to extended benefits.
A claimant who is unable to return to any job in the open market because he/she retains a permanent disability from a work injury may be entitled to permanent total disability benefits.Bomely v. Mid-Am. Corp., 970 S.W.2d 929, 931 (Tenn. 1998). This benefit continues at the claimant’s compensation rate until the claimant is eligible for retirement based on their age under the Social Security Law.
The Hinson case is particularly instructive. Hinson v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 654 S.W.2d 675 (Tenn. 1983). In this case, the claimant fell off a ladder at work and sustained injury to the femur. The trial court held that claimant was permanently and totally disabled, and the Supreme Court of Tennessee agreed. Specifically, the court emphasized that “it must be kept in mind that this Court makes a clear distinction in worker's compensation cases between anatomical impairment as determined by a physician and disability to work which results from such impairment.” Federated Mut. Implement & Hardware Ins. Co. v. Cameron, 220 Tenn. 636, 422 S.W.2d 427 (1967). The court recognized that in determining what may constitute permanent and total disability many pertinent factors should be considered, including the skills, education, and training of the claimant as well as job opportunities and other factors bearing upon employability. In determining the sufficiency of evidence to support disability, the extent of the disability should be determined through further medical evidence and lay testimony. The court also stated that the judge should not be bound by the physicians’ opinions only but should analyze evidence from expert and non-expert witnesses, including those outside of the medical field.
In another case, which is unpublished, Darnell v. Connecticut Indem. Co., No. M2003-00914-SC-WCMCV, 2005 WL 625885, at *1 (Tenn. Workers Comp. Panel Mar. 17, 2005), the claimant began working as a machinist out of high school where he sustained injuries to the right upper back and shoulder. The doctor that treated claimant assigned a 49% permanent partial impairment to the body as a whole. The claimant was able to use his left arm. The claimant attended a second opinion with another physician and his diagnosis was confirmed. There was also testimony from a vocational counselor for the claimant, who concluded that the claimant was permanently and totally disabled considering the medical opinions and educational history of claimant. Another vocational expert testified for the employer and was of the opinion that there were jobs available in the labor market that could be performed with the use of one hand or arm.
The trial court found claimant was totally disabled, and the workers’ compensation panel agreed. The record established that the claimant, a high school graduate, was right hand dominant. Although he occasionally managed to hunt and perform other functions, he was in constant pain, which caused him the need to lie down. The authorized treating physician testified that the claimant could perform work using his left arm. Although the vocational expert for defendants testified that there were jobs available in the marketplace, there was no evidence presented that those jobs actually existed in the marketplace where the claimant lived. Considering the physical limitations of the claimant and other factors such as past work history, job skills, training, education, and job opportunities, it was concluded that the claimant was totally disabled.
This case helps emphasize the factual specificity that may be very important in each extended benefits case. For example, it is foreseeable that, even where a vocational expert provides good testimony on job availability and prospective employment, there may need to be specific considerations for geographical location and actual real-world availability.
Georgia also has a 400-week limit on benefits per Ga. Code Ann. § 34-9-261. In the event of a catastrophic injury, there may be an entitlement to extended benefits. Ga. Code Ann. § 34-9-200.1 outlines the possible catastrophic injuries and defines this type of claim as one of more of the following: the claimant has a severe brain or closed head injury; the claimant has a spinal cord injury resulting in severe paralysis of the arm, leg, or trunk; the injury resulted in an amputation of arm, hand, foot, or leg; the injury resulted in second or third degree burns covering a specific percentage of the body; the worker has a diagnosis of industrial or total blindness; or the injuries render him unable to perform his prior work, as well as any additional work available for which he is otherwise qualified. The last group, as expected, results in the most litigation and involves a more subjective analysis of entitlement to benefits. The courts have typically analyzed educational history, work background and experience, the current labor market, vocational experts and analysis, and the possibility of job training when considering whether the claimant is entitled to extended benefits under that classification.
In Reid v. Georgia Bldg. Auth., 283 Ga. App. 413, 641 S.E.2d 642 (2007), the claimant sustained a work-related hand injury and requested a hearing to determine whether her claim was catastrophic under the Act. The State Board of Workers’ Compensation found the injury was catastrophic and the appellate court agreed. The superior court reversed the state board and the claimant appealed. The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the superior court’s ruling. The claimant argued that her claim was catastrophic as it prevented her from returning to work. There was no dispute that she could not perform her pre-injury job. The only question was whether there was any work available within the national economy for which claimant was otherwise qualified.
The evidence showed that claimant previously did housekeeping work that included “[s]weeping, mopping, dusting, and regular ... cleaning,” and required the ability to “lift, push, pull, and carry heavy item[s].” Her physician released her to limited work of no heavy gripping, lifting, or carrying over 10 pounds. She returned to work, but was unable to perform her duties, so stopped working in any capacity altogether. Claimant’s physician ultimately concluded she was permanently and totally disabled from performing her previous job. The state board found that the claimant was 66 years old and had performed housekeeping work her entire life. She had no computer skills, completed school only through the 11th grade, and had no specialized training. It was further found that she could not perform work activities over four hours per day without experiencing swelling in the hand.
The Court of Appeals found that the claimant did not present any competent evidence that she was unable to perform any work available in substantial numbers within the national economy. At the bare minimum, she should have tried to demonstrate that she attempted to obtain employment within her limitations. The sole evidence regarding her job search was a general statement at hearing that she “looked for work.” She also did not present a vocational expert. Thus, the court held there was insufficient evidence that the claimant was entitled to extended benefits.
In another case, Caswell, Inc. v. Spencer, 280 Ga. App. 141, 633 S.E.2d 449 (2006), the claimant argued his back claim was catastrophic in nature and he was entitled to extended benefits. The State Board of Workers’ Compensation found his injuries were catastrophic and cited, among other things, the claimant’s age of 62 years, stating it rendered him unable to even adapt to light duty work. Defendants appealed and were granted a hearing with an administrative law judge, who rejected the state board’s decision and found that the injuries were not catastrophic. The appellate division of the board agreed. Claimant then appealed to superior court, arguing that the board failed to consider his age. The superior court agreed and remanded the case.
The case was then appealed to the Court of Appeals. The court found that the record showed the claimant’s age was fully considered, it was simply that the administrative law judge and appellate division of the board found the testimony from a vocational specialist to be more credible. The vocational expert disagreed with the statement that someone who is 62 years old is unable to learn new skills, noting he was not aware of any rule or school of thought that supported that contention. The vocational expert also provided research that many retired individuals were going back to work. The expert also testified that, in the national economy, there were something like four million jobs the claimant could perform. The Court of Appeals found that the superior court’s decision that age was not considered was unfounded. Thus, the claim was remanded to the board for reconsideration.
Practical Takeaways for Jurisdictions with Statutory Caps
The case law and jurisdictional analyses above help to forecast what issues North Carolina Appellate Courts will consider when analyzing extended benefits cases in the days to come. What is less clear is whether North Carolina Courts will adopt an analysis similar to Georgia, which requires more of an “obliteration” or complete loss of any wage-earning capacity, or whether it will be similar to Virginia where the medical aspect of the case, as well as “loss of use,” will be extremely important to the outcome.
When we zoom out and examine the trends from this analysis, a list of general takeaways emerges on how to defend a claim for benefits beyond a statutory cap:
1. Each case will be fact specific; documentation and communication remain critical.
2. The claim will require the use of credible, and in many cases multiple, experts.
3. Defendants should obtain solid expert opinions, both medical and vocational, that clearly support a finding that a claimant can participate in some form of employment.
4. It is important to elicit detailed testimony, including dates, times and follow-ups, from the claimant regarding his or her job search, or lack thereof.
5. The vocational expert should meet with the claimant in person to identify jobs within the claimant’s labor market that are readily available in light of his or her work restrictions and educational and vocational background. Additionally, the vocational counselor should contact those potential employers to determine the likelihood that the claimant can secure employment within his or her work restrictions.
6. It is important to have a detailed understanding of the claimant’s job history, educational background and daily activities, including volunteer activities, as evidence of the claimant’s wage-earning ability.
7. It will benefit the defense to develop solid medical evidence about the claimant’s loss of use or impairment ratings by highlighting the functionality of the injured body part.