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Worker's education level factored into disability benefits ruling

Posted On: Mar. 8, 2013 12:00 AM CST

A worker's “limited education” was appropriately figured into his award for permanent total disability workers compensation benefits because it hindered him from finding work he can perform with his physical limitations, a Missouri Court of Appeals panel ruled this week.

Todd J. Grauberger worked as a mover for Evansville, Ind.-based Atlas Van Lines Inc. He injured his lower back while working in 2001, and X-rays showed that he had a herniated disc, court records show.

Mr. Grauberger underwent back surgery, but continued to experience continuous back pain and “substantial pain and numbness in his legs,” records show. He ultimately did not return to work, and later filed for permanent total disability benefits.

Two doctors who examined Mr. Grauberger found that he had a "failed back" that could not be remedied by treatment or surgery, records show. A vocational counselor found that Mr. Grauberger's "functional limitations, limited education, and poor test results" would prevent him from finding a job in the open market.

Mr. Grauberger has a high school diploma, but tests showed that he had an eighth-grade reading level and a sixth-grade arithmetic level.

The vocational counselor “said claimant's physical limitations could be accommodated only in a managerial-type job requiring high education,” according to a ruling Monday from the appellate court. “(The counselor) stated claimant 'doesn't have the aptitude to be retrained, given his age and his educational experience and the . . . results from his tests.'”

While two other experts found that Mr. Grauberger could perform administrative or medium-duty moving work, the Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission ruled that Mr. Grauberger should receive benefits. Atlas appealed, arguing in part that the ruling should not have considered Mr. Grauberger's education.

A three-judge panel of the Missouri appellate court unanimously upheld the labor commission's ruling on Monday. In its opinion, the court said that "the determination of disability is not purely a medical question" and that Mr. Grauberger's age and potential for retraining were appropriately figured into his permanent total disability determination.

"In making the determination of whether any employer could reasonably be expected to hire a claimant, the finder of fact can consider evidence aside from physician testimony which bears on the claimant's suitability for a job," the ruling reads. "Here, Claimant's age and potential for retraining were factors that affected whether an employer could reasonably be expected to hire him."