September 29, 2010

Refusing a light duty assignment

Refusing a light duty assignment
Korczyk v City of Albany, 264 AD2d 908

The Appellate Division’s ruling in the Korczyk case cautions that public employees injured in the line of duty may be required by their employer to accept light duty assignments if medically able to do so or risk losing their workers’ compensation benefits.

A similar result is mandated by Sections 207-a and 207-c of the General Municipal Law. These sections provide benefits to firefighters and police officers injured in the line of duty. Such benefits must be discontinued if the injured firefighter or police officer refuses to accept an appropriate light duty assignment for which he or she is found to be medically qualified.

The case involved Stephanie Korczyk, a mechanic’s helper for the City of Albany. In 1992, Korczyk injured her back while at work.

After initially paying her workers’ compensation benefits for about a year, the city sought to end the payment of such benefits on the theory that Korczyk had “voluntary withdrawn from the labor market.” Its explanation for how it reached that conclusion: Korczyk had refused to accept a light duty assignment it had offered to her.

According to Korczyk, she had discussed the city’s offer of a light duty assignment with her chiropractor, P. J. Leonard in April 1993 and Leonard told her that she was incapable of working the eight-hour day required by the assignment. She told the city that “she would return to work as soon as Leonard released her to do so.”

But, according to the decision, “Leonard testified that [Korczyk] was able to return to work to some degree in February 1993” and that “[h]is notes did not reflect, and he did not recollect, any discussion with Korczyk about an offer of a light-duty assignment in April 1993.”

Korczyk conceded that she did not ask Leonard whether she could return to work until she took a part-time job in December 1993 while attending college.

After “a full development of the record”, the Workers’ Compensation Board ruled that Korczyk’s refusal of the city’s offer of light-duty work constituted a voluntary withdrawal from the labor market and her workers’ compensation benefits were stopped. Korczyk appealed.

The basic issue: does a claimant’s failure to accept a light-duty assignment constitutes a voluntary withdrawal from the labor market? The Appellate Division said this was an issue for the Workers’ Compensation Board rather than the courts to resolve.

The court sustained the board’s finding that Korczyk voluntarily withdrew from the labor market by refusing a light-duty assignment some eight months before she took the part-time job, noting that the board’s finding was supported by substantial evidence.

Another point: it should be remembered that Section 71 of the Civil Service Law mandates that a public employee in the classified service who has been disabled as a result of an occupational injury or disease as defined in the Workers’ Compensation Law is entitled to leave without pay for at least one year unless the disability is “of such a nature as to permanently incapacitate” the individual for the performance of the duties of the position.

It is expected that the courts would view the right to Section 71 leave and the right to workers’ compensation benefits as independent rights and the loss of eligibility for one would not necessarily have an adverse impact on the individual’s right to the other.

In other words, even if an individual on Section 71 leave is “terminated” after one year of such absence, this action does not result in the automatic discontinuation of his or her workers’ compensation benefits. By the same token, the fact that an individual is declared ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits would not automatically mean that his or her Section 71 leave status ends.

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If you are interested in learning more about General Municipal Law §207-a or §207-c disability benefits and procedures please click here:
http://section207.blogspot.com/2010/03/v-behaviorurldefaultvml-o.html

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