Jean Fitchett vs. WCAB (School District of Philadelphia); 1713 C.D. 2011

WORKERS' COMPENSATION UPDATES

Issue: Can a Workers’ Compensation Judge suspend a claimant’s benefits when Employer never formally requested a suspension of benefits?

 

Background: Claimant, Jean Fitchett, was injured in February, 2001 as a result of a student attack. In September, 2003, Employer issued a Notice of Suspension due to Claimant’s failure to return form LIBC-760. In October, 2003, Employer filed a Termination Petition alleging that Claimant was fully recovered from her work injuries. Claimant filed a Penalty Petition alleging that Employer unilaterally suspended benefits in violation of the Act.

 

Claimant testified that she received no benefits since September 5, 2003, when Employer filed its Notice of Suspension. She further testified that she never received the LIBC-760 prior to receiving the Notice of Suspension.

 

Claimant testified that she began receiving pension benefits at the rate of $699 per month in April, 2002. She began receiving social security retirement benefits at the rate of $1,101 per month in October, 2004. Claimant explained that she only accepted these benefits due to lack of income from employment. Claimant, first, testified that she was retired. She later testified that she would have continued to work but for the work injury.

 

In a November, 2004 interlocutory order, the WCJ ordered Employer to reinstate Claimant’s benefits as of November 2, 2004 when Claimant presented the Court with a completed LIBC-760. The Judge further ordered that Employer was entitled to a credit for pension and social security retirement benefits Claimant received against the renewed receipt of weekly compensation benefits.

The WCJ issued a Decision granting Claimant’s Penalty Petition and denying Employer’s Termination Petition. However, the WCJ ordered Claimant’s benefits suspended as of June 4, 2005, as Claimant had essentially retired and voluntarily withdrawn from the workforce.

 

Claimant appealed the WCJ’s Decision arguing that the WCJ erred in suspending Claimant’s benefits on the basis that Claimant essentially retired from the workforce because Employer never requested a suspension of benefits due to Claimant’s retirement. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed the suspension as did the Commonwealth Court noting that a WCJ has authority to suspend a claimant’s benefits in absence of a formal petition where doing so would not prejudice the claimant.

 

A claimant is not prejudiced where he or she is put of notice that a termination or suspension is possible and is given the opportunity to defend against it. Adequate notice is based on the totality of the circumstances in each particular case. Here, the Court found that Claimant had adequate notice to defend against the retirement issue. Employer filed a Termination Petition. In addition, Employer’s entitlement to a suspension based on failure to return LIBC-760 remained at issue in Claimant’s Penalty Petition. Lastly, in the WCJ’s interlocutory order reinstating Claimant’s benefits, he provided Employer with a credit for Claimant’s pension benefits and social security retirement benefits. Furthermore, in the original proceedings, the parties took testimony with regard to the circumstances surrounding Claimant receipt of pension benefits, social security retirement benefits, and her alleged retirement from the workforce.

 

Ruling: Yes, a WCJ has the authority to suspend a claimant’s benefits in the absence of a formal petition.

 

Practical Significance: The Workers’ Compensation Judge has the authority to suspend or terminate a claimant’s benefits during litigation even if the employer does not file a formal Petition seeking a suspension or termination as long as the claimant is put on notice of the potential suspension and/or termination and is given the opportunity to defend against it.