Snyder v. Goodyear

The Snyder decision is guided by Russell v. Lowe’s, 108 N.C. App. 762 (1993), which provides methods to establish a plaintiff is incapable of earning the same wages he had earned before his injury.  The relevant method applied Snyder is the second method found in Russell, where a plaintiff presents evidence he is capable of some work, but after a reasonable effort on his part, has been unsuccessful in obtaining employment.

This claim arose from a back injury that occurred in October of 2013 when plaintiff was attempting to pull a tire carcass that was stuck.  The claim was denied.  After receiving medical treatment, plaintiff was released to return to work in November of 2013 with restrictions that he could not lift more than 25 pounds and could not engage in repetitive bending.  Plaintiff reported to work but was sent home because of his restrictions.

Plaintiff received more medical treatment and underwent a “fit” test in February of 2014.  The results of the “fit” test allowed him to be released to work without any restrictions.  Plaintiff attempted to resume his regular job duties but could not perform due to pain.  His medical providers removed him from work through March of 2014.  Thereafter, plaintiff’s providers did not specifically address his work restrictions because he was not working at the time.

A hearing was held on July 24, 2014, and Deputy Commissioner Baddour issued an opinion and award in which he concluded that plaintiff’s injury was compensable and that plaintiff had demonstrated he was disabled and entitled to disability compensation.  In order for the Commission to conclude plaintiff is entitled to disability, they must find he was incapable after his injury of earning the same wages he had earned before his injury, and that his incapacity to earn was caused by the injury.

Defendants appealed to the Full Commission, and the Full Commission affirmed the Deputy Commissioner’s opinion.  Specifically, the Full Commission found that plaintiff met his burden from the date of injury until November and from February to March by proving he was incapable of work, since he was restricted by his medical providers.  However, the real issue was whether plaintiff made a reasonable effort to find employment during the periods he was not completely restricted from working.

The Full Commission found that plaintiff made himself available for work with Defendant-Employer within his restrictions.  When he was allowed, he attempted to perform the assigned work.  Defendant-Employer did not provided plaintiff with a suitable job while plaintiff remained employed with Defendant-Employer. Thus, he had a reasonable expectation of being able to return to employment with Defendant-Employer once he was healed.  The Full Commission found plaintiff’s efforts to return to work with restrictions in November of 2013 was a reasonable, but unsuccessful effort to obtain employment.

Defendants appealed and The Court of Appeals affirmed the Full Commission decision.

The Court of Appeals gives considerable deference to the Commission’s findings as to whether an employee has made reasonable efforts to obtain employment.  The Court found the Carr v. Department of Health, 218 N.C.App. 151 (2012) decision instructive.  In that case, a plaintiff was not able to return to work because her employer did not make a job available within her restrictions.  The Commission did not make specific findings regarding whether the plaintiff in Carr made reasonable efforts to find employment, so the case was remanded.

The Court differentiated Snyder from Carr because the Commission in Snyder did make specific findings that plaintiff made a reasonable effort to find employment.  The Court of Appeals held that the Commission’s unchallenged findings of fact supported its determination that plaintiff made reasonable efforts to find employment under the specific facts of the case.  This holding does not stand for the proposition that an employer’s failure to provide light duty work automatically allows an employee to meet his burden of establishing disability through Russell.

Practice Point

If you are unable to provide light duty in order to accommodate an injured workers’ restrictions, retaining him as an employee when he has not reached MMI could serve to establish he has made a reasonable effort to find employment.