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Workers’ Compensation – Voluntary Retirement Doesn’t Defeat Disability Claim

Teresa Bruno, Opinions Editor//January 10, 2018//

Workers’ Compensation – Voluntary Retirement Doesn’t Defeat Disability Claim

Teresa Bruno, Opinions Editor//January 10, 2018//

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Employees covered by the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act can claim disability benefits despite voluntary retirement, the circuit court held.

After working for Appellee Huntington Ingalls Inc. for 45 years, Appellant Russell Moody gave 90 days’ notice of his retirement due to unhappiness with a new shift assignment. During the notice window, Moody injured his shoulder at work. Although the injury would require surgery, he continued to work and receive his normal wages. He retired 90 days after giving notice, as planned. A month and a half later, he underwent shoulder surgery and was advised to remain out of work for two months. As his employer at the time of the injury, Huntington paid the costs of surgery, but refused to pay disability benefits during the post-operation recovery period in which Moody was retired.

To demonstrate a compensable disability under the Act, a claimant must show that he suffered an “incapacity because of injury to earn the wages which the employee was receiving at the time of injury in the same or any other employment.” Nothing in the statute expressly addresses retirement or its timing. There is no dispute that, apart from the two-month recovery period, Moody had the ability, competence, and capability of working for wages on the days before and after his retirement. Retirement, quite simply, is not inherently debilitating.

As the U.S. Supreme Court has held, when capacity – and thus disability – is not reflected in actual wages earned after injury, the factfinder must make a determination of disability that is reasonable and in the interest of justice, and one that takes account of the disability’s future effects. In this case, actual wage loss does not fully capture the loss of capacity caused by Moody’s shoulder injury.

The fact that Moody did not work or seek job opportunities after retirement does not go to incapacity and, thus, does not change the analysis. Workers under the Act are entitled to disability benefits when an injury is sufficient to preclude the possibility of working. Here, Moody could have changed his mind and chosen to work during his post-operative period, perhaps in a job that offered better hours. His shoulder injury and the resulting surgery took that choice away from him for at least two months.

The purpose of the Act was to provide workers with necessary humanitarian protections in the interest of social justice between employer and employee, and the Supreme Court has recognized that the Act represents a compromise between their competing interests. Under this compromise, employees give up the possibility of greater damages in tort litigation in return for the certainty of compensation payments. In this case, the court gives effect to that compromise by applying the plain text of the statute and, where the text is ambiguous, adopting the interpretation that affords greater certainty of coverage.

Reversed and remanded.

Moody v. Huntington Ingalls Inc., Case No. 16-1773, Jan. 3, 2018, 4th Cir. (Gregory). John Harlow Klein for Petitioner; Christopher R. Hedrick for Respondent. Lawyres Weekly No. 001-008-18, 9 pp.

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