The Maine Workers’ Compensation Board Appellate Division has recently issued helpful, fact-specific decision affirming the denial of partial incapacity benefits for an injured employee who voluntarily resigned from her job.

In Charmaine Shaw v. Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department, Ms. Shaw worked as a corrections officer and fractured her ankle at work while responding to a distress call. She was out of work for a few months, and the County voluntarily paid her medical and incapacity benefits. She then returned to light-duty work until her orthopedist released her to full duty without restrictions, at which point she returned to her position as a corrections officer, albeit in continued pain. She was then “involved in a breach of security that became the subject of an internal affairs investigation.” Given a previous disciplinary infraction, her latest breach may have resulted in her termination, so she resigned instead of awaiting the result of the investigation.

While Ms. Shaw was recovering from her ankle fracture, she used crutches, which gradually caused pain in her shoulder and numbness in her hands. After she resigned, her ankle symptoms increased, so her doctor gave her no work capacity at all. She underwent a second ankle surgery to remove the hardware from the first surgery, and she had a left carpal tunnel release, which also totally disabled her. Ms. Shaw filed a petition for award, and Dr. Esponnette conducted a §207 exam giving her a partial work capacity with significant restrictions. At hearing, she admitted that, after resigning from the County, she had not looked for work at all but instead took care of her granddaughter.

Judge Collier granted her petition in part, awarding two closed-end periods of total incapacity benefits following each of her surgeries, but he found that she had a limited work capacity otherwise. Ms. Shaw’s doctors had said she was totally disabled, but at deposition, her doctors admitted she had a limited work capacity. The County argued that §214 barred any award of partial incapacity benefits because Ms. Shaw’s resignation constituted “refusal of a bona fide offer of reasonable employment without good and reasonable cause.” Ms. Shaw argued that her “refusal” ended when her doctors told her she was totally disabled, but Judge Collier was not persuaded, so Ms. Shaw appealed.

The Appellate Division panel, however, affirmed his decision, holding that under §214 (1) (A) resigning from a current employment relationship is a rejection of the employer’s ongoing offer of work. The panel noted that when she resigned she still had a partial work capacity, she didn’t tell anyone at the County her ankle injury prevented her from performing her job, and she never asked to be reinstated.

Ms. Shaw suggested that her discovery responses indicated her willingness to return to work, but Judge Collier disagreed. She also argued that she was entitled to rely on her own doctors’ assessment of total incapacity, but again Judge Collier disagreed and instead adopted Dr. Esponnette’s assessment of partial work capacity. Judge Collier found that, by failing to offer to return to work, Ms. Shaw “deprived the County of the chance to mitigate its obligation to pay benefits by offering her alternative employment.”

This decision demonstrates the importance of employers providing suitable light-duty work for injured employees, and the importance of employees remaining at their light-duty jobs. It also demonstrates that the §214 bar applies only to partial incapacity benefits, not to total incapacity benefits, which (as in this case) may be owed despite the employee’s resignation. The outcome in this case, however, would likely have been just the opposite, had the County completed its investigation of her “breach” and unilaterally terminated her employment, even though the County may have had cause to do so.

If you have any questions about this case or any other workers’ compensation matter, please let us know.

Thomas Getchell
Daniel F. Gilligan