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Disability ruling for man whose company did not accommodate him reversed

Disability ruling for man whose company did not accommodate him reversed

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Thursday awarded permanent total disability to a man who injured his back working for a large paper company that failed to prove that the employee was provided with adequate accommodations after returning to work.

Stanley Christie, described in court records as a long-term employee of Georgia-Pacific Co., a pulp and paper company based in Atlanta, injured is back at the company’s Portland, Oregon, facility in 1999 and required surgery in 2004, according to documents in Stanley Christie v. Georgia-Pacific Co., Ace American Insurance Co., director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Program.

Upon returning to work in 2006, Georgia-Pacific assigned Mr. Christie the role of safety inspector, a less-demanding warehouse position albeit one that required lifting of apparatus. “Due to his physical limitations, Christie had difficulty performing some of his job duties,” records state.

In late 2010, Mr. Christie learned from his labor union's director that Georgia-Pacific was likely eliminating early retirement in 2011. Under the early retirement option available to Mr. Christie in 2010, he could choose to retire after age 55 and accept a penalty reducing his monthly payments by 18%. “Christie knew that without the early retirement option, he was ineligible for retirement income until age 62. Because Christie, then 56, believed he would be unable to continue working for another six years due to his physical limitations, he decided to retire early, effective December 1, 2010,” records state.

Meanwhile by November 2012, the doctor providing Mr. Christie with ingoing pain treatment believed he had reached his maximum medical improvement, meaning the injury had healed to the fullest extent possible, records state. “Because of his physical limitations and inability to work, Christie filed a claim seeking permanent total disability benefits under the (Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act),” for which he was eligible, records state.

The administrative law judge who considered Mr. Christie's claim awarded him permanent total disability benefits. Georgia-Pacific appealed that decision to the United States Department of Labor's Benefits Review Board, which reversed the award of benefits, claiming “an employee's injury must be the cause of the employee's inability to earn wages. And because the Board determined that Christie's loss of wages was due to his decision to retire early, and not because of his work-related injury, Christie was not entitled to benefits.”

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit unanimously reversed that ruling Thursday, asserting that “we hold that retirement status alone, in and of itself, is not dispositive to determining disability under the (Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act).”

The ruling also reiterated that Ms. Christie could not physically continue to work, an issue that pushed him to retire early, per court records: “Georgia-Pacific failed to establish that suitable alternative employment was available to Christie. Although the Board and Georgia-Pacific highlight that Christie was capable of working as a safety inspector at Georgia-Pacific with suitable accommodations at the time he retired, substantial evidence supports the (administrative law judge)'s finding that Georgia-Pacific never actually offered these accommodations to Christie.

“Indeed, the (administrative law judge) concluded that no one at Georgia-Pacific told Christie that Christie could ask for help with conducting the physical inspections of the warehouses that were part of Christie's work tasks. In addition, the (administrative law judge) found that Georgia-Pacific had not documented any accommodations the company made for Christie. Georgia-Pacific therefore ‘fail(ed) to establish the availability of suitable alternative employment’ because it failed to offer Christie a job that accounts for his physical limitations.”

Officials with Georgia-Pacific could not be immediately reached for comment.

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