WCB App. Div. Affirms Award of Partial Benefits

The Workers’ Compensation Board Appellate Division has issued its final decision for 2016, affirming on award of partial incapacity benefits for an injured employee who had a partial work capacity but who voluntarily returned to school rather than find a job with a new employer.

In Michael McLaughlin v. State of Maine, Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management, McLaughlin injured his back at work and a 2010 decree awarded him closed-end period of incapacity benefits. He had returned to work with restrictions in an accommodated position, until the Department laid him off in October 2013 "due to an economic downturn." Apparently, at the time of the layoff, McLaughlin was already out of work due to a non-work related condition; in any event, he returned to school full-time.

McLaughlin filed a Petition for Restoration claiming the layoff was a " change in circumstances" since the last decree. The Department claimed that the prior decree was res judicata and prevented him from getting additional incapacity benefits, and that by returning to school he had failed to demonstrate earning incapacity related to his injury. Judge Pelletier granted his petition and awarded him ongoing partial benefits based on an imputed full-time earning capacity.

The Department appealed, but the Appellate Division panel rejected its arguments, finding that the layoff from an accommodated position was a "change in circumstances" sufficient to reexamine his benefit status. The panel also held that, although McLaughlin was out of work with a non-work condition, §201 (5) requires only that the effects of that unrelated condition "be separated out so they do not affect the amount or duration of benefits awarded for a prior work-related injury."

Finally, the panel held that McLaughlin's return to school full time, rather to some form of work, did not disqualify him from partial incapacity benefits, because he had proven that his ongoing restrictions decreased his ability to earn. Moreover, Judge Pelletier imputed a full-time earning capacity to McLaughlin and granted him only partial incapacity benefits. Indeed, the panel found that the Department's own evidence demonstrated McLaughlin's diminished earning potential in the labor market.

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Thomas Getchell
Daniel Gilligan
Michael Richards
Attorneys at Law