Court deals with case of injured worker

Paul Pfeifer
By Paul Pfeifer

Billy G. Black started working for Park Ohio Industries decades ago, when he was a teenager. When Black injured his back while working as a press operator on October 17, 2000, his eventual workers’ compensation claim ended up here – at the Ohio Supreme Court.

Dr. Elizabeth Mease diagnosed Black’s injury as lumbar strain. She placed him on modified activity with restrictions. Black returned to work two days later and was assigned to clean bathrooms. After a few hours, he returned to Dr. Mease, who indicated that Black shouldn’t engage in any activity.

A month later, Dr. Mease authorized Black to return to work with restrictions and referred him to Dr. Mark Panigutti, an orthopedic physician. On December 11, Dr. Panigutti opined that Black hadn’t yet reached maximum improvement, but that his prognosis was good. He authorized Black to return to work on December 13, 2000, with weight and standing restrictions for one month, after which he could return to full duty. That same day, Black notified Park Ohio that he intended to retire on February 28, 2001.

Black returned to work with modified duty. On January 22, 2001, he saw Dr. Panigutti for back pain and a possible hernia. Dr. Panigutti increased Black’s weight restrictions based in part on complaints of pain unrelated to his back injury.

Black worked until February 9. He retired on February 28, at the age of 55, with 38 years of service. At no time following his retirement did he pursue vocational training or seek other employment.

Years later, on August 14, 2009, Black applied for permanent-total-disability compensation (“PTD”). As the name implies, PTD is a benefit for injured employees who are unable to return to work because of an industrial injury.

Following a hearing with the Industrial Commission of Ohio – which handles such matters – a hearing officer denied Black’s application. The hearing officer noted there was no medical evidence that any physician had advised Black to retire because of his previously allowed injuries and that Black had not worked or looked for work since his 2001 retirement.

Thus, the hearing officer concluded that Black’s retirement was both voluntary and an abandonment of the entire workforce. When someone voluntarily retires and abandons the workforce, he is ineligible for subsequent PTD.

After this, Black turned to the court of appeals, alleging that the Commission had abused its discretion and arbitrarily denied his request for PTD. The court of appeals concluded that the Commission inaccurately declared that there was no medical evidence that Black’s retirement was induced by his injury. The court of appeals issued a limited writ ordering the Commission to vacate the order denying benefits and enter an order that properly determines Black’s eligibility for PTD.

His case then came before us for a final review. Because PTD eligibility is affected if the claimant has voluntarily retired, the character of the employee’s retirement – whether voluntary or involuntary – is critical to the Commission’s analysis of a claimant’s right to PTD.

Park Ohio argued that the Commission considered evidence of Black’s medical condition at the time of his retirement. The Commission specifically considered Dr. Panigutti’s January 22 report and concluded: “There is no medical evidence as required, and had concluded that the evidence did not support Black’s assertion that his retirement was induced by his injury.

Park Ohio asserted that this evidence, along with Black’s failure to work or look for work following his retirement, demonstrated that Park Ohio had met its burden of proving that Black had voluntarily abandoned the workforce.

Our court has established in prior cases that whether a claimant has voluntarily retired or has abandoned the workforce is a question of fact for the Commission to determine. The question of abandonment is “primarily …one of intent…that may be inferred from words spoken, acts done, and other objective facts.”

Accordingly, the Commission must consider all relevant circumstances, including evidence of the claimant’s medical condition at the time of departure from the workforce, and any other evidence that would connect the injury and retirement.

The Commission is exclusively responsible for evaluating the weight and credibility of the evidence. If the Commission’s order is supported by some evidence in the record, then the Commission has not abused its discretion.

The Commission focused on Black’s return to work and the contemporaneous notice of his intent to retire in two months. Based on this evidence, the Commission concluded that there was no medical evidence submitted at the time Black announced his planned retirement that a physician had advised him to retire.

In addition, the Commission’s order noted that Black’s last day of work was on February 9, that he officially retired on February 28, 2001, and that he had neither worked nor looked for work since then.

Based on these facts, the Commission concluded that Black’s retirement was not only voluntary but also was abandonment of the entire workforce.

The job of a reviewing court – such as the court of appeals and our court – is to determine whether there is some evidence in the record to support the Commission’s decision. When doing so, a court must not substitute its judgment for that of the Commission or second-guess the Commission’s evaluation of the evidence. But that’s what the court of appeals did in this case.

The court of appeals didn’t find a lack of evidence to support the Commission’s decision, but rather determined that the Commission had misconstrued the evidence it considered. The court erred in doing so.

Therefore, because the record contained some evidence to support the Commission’s decision that Black’s retirement was voluntary and not injury-induced, we concluded that the Commission did not abuse its discretion when it determined that Black was ineligible for PTD compensation. Consequently – by a seven-to-zero vote – we reversed the judgment of the court of appeals.

Paul Pfeifer is an Ohio Supreme Court Justice.

Editor’s Note: The case referred to is: State ex rel. Black v. Indus Comm., 137 Ohio St.3d 75, 2013-Ohio-4550. Case No. 2012-1163. Decided October 17, 2013. Opinion Per Curiam.