Can you collect when the injury occurred before retirement?

Can an employee collect compensation after retirement?

The Parties

The Mr. Moody, Russell Moody, had the kind of relationship with his employer that is rarely seen these days – he worked for Huntington Ingalls Incorporated for 45 years. Initially, he worked as a welder.

Huntington Ingalls is an American Fortune 500 military shipbuilding company. The company is an offshoot of Northrop Grumman.

The Facts

Mr. Moody suffered a back injury in July 2001 while working for Huntington Ingalls, Incorporated as a welder. This injury required three surgeries.  Mr. Moody returned to suitable work for Huntington Ingalls, Inc. as a driver in 2011.  He later notified Huntington Ingalls, Inc. on August 1, 2011, that he intended to retire. As a result, and in accordance with company policy, Mr. Moody’s last day of work was three months later on October 31, 2011.

During the interim, Mr. Moody injured his right shoulder during the course of his employment for Huntington Ingalls, Inc. However, he was able to continue working as a driver.  Mr. Moody first received medical treatment for his injury on November 2, 2011, and he underwent shoulder surgery on December 13, 2011. Mr. Moody’s treating physician released him to work on February 17, 2012, with restrictions of no overhead reaching, lifting or carrying more than 10 pounds.

Employment Conditions

The injuries

In July of 2001, Mr. Moody suffered a back injury which required three surgeries. And sometime between August 1 and October 31 of 2011, he suffered a shoulder injury which also required surgery.

The employer’s actions

Huntington Ingalls, Inc. declined to pay Mr. Moody compensation for temporary total disability for the period he was unable to work while he was recuperating from shoulder surgery. That was from December 13, 2011 to February 16, 2012.

Results of the Initial Hearing

The administrative law judge found that Mr. Moody was entitled to temporary total disability compensation for his recuperative period.  The administrative law judge rejected Mr. Moody’s contention that his retirement was “involuntary,” that is, due to his work-related injuries.  The administrative law judge attributed Mr. Moody’s retirement to his displeasure at having to work the second shift from 3:30 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.  However, the administrative law judge also found that, pursuant to Harmon v. Sea-Land Service, Inc., 31 BRBS 45 (1997), Mr. Moody’s retirement prior to the time of his surgery was irrelevant. He only needed to show that his physical disability was due to the work injury and did not also need to establish a loss of wage-earning capacity due to the injury.  Because there was no dispute between the parties that Mr. Moody could not perform his usual work while he was recuperating from shoulder surgery, the administrative law judge awarded Mr. Moody compensation for temporary total disability for the period from December 13, 2011 to February 16, 2012.

The Appeal

On appeal, Huntington Ingalls, Inc. challenged the award of disability benefits. They contended that the administrative law judge erred by applying Harmon.  Huntington Ingalls asserted that Mr. Moody was not entitled to disability compensation because he voluntarily retired prior to undergoing surgery.  Huntington Ingalls, Inc. asserted that it did not have to pay compensation when there was no economic loss due to the work injury because Mr. Moody no longer had any wage-earning capacity at the time of the physical incapacitation.  Mr. Moody urged affirmance of the administrative law judge’s compensation award.

The Ruling on Appeal

The administrative appeals judges agreed with Huntington Ingalls, Inc., and therefore, they reversed the award of benefits.

Contrary to the administrative law judge’s statement in the initial hearing, the administrative appeals judges felt that the issue concerning the reason for Mr. Moody’s retirement was central to this case because resolution of that issue determined whether Mr. Moody’s disability was “because of injury”.

And in finding that Mr. Moody’s retirement was “voluntary,” the administrative law judge determined that Mr. Moody retired due to his displeasure at being assigned to work the second shift, and he rejected as not credible Mr. Moody’s contention that driving aggravated his 2001 work-related back injury and caused his retirement. This finding was within the administrative law judge’s discretion and it was supported by substantial evidence of record.

In addition, Mr. Moody did not allege that his shoulder injury prevented him from continuing to work for Huntington Ingalls, Inc.  As a result, in this case, Mr. Moody continued working in a suitable position until he voluntarily retired.  Accordingly, as Mr. Moody did not establish that either his work-related back or shoulder injury prevented him from working as a driver at the time of his retirement on October 31, 2011, he did not establish that he lost any wage-earning capacity “because of” his work injuries.  Mr. Moody’s retirement had already resulted in his complete loss of earning capacity at the time of his shoulder surgery.

Therefore, the administrative appeals judges reversed the administrative law judge’s award of post-retirement temporary total disability compensation.

The Takeaway

With a voluntary retirement, Mr. Moody essentially torpedoed his own case. Of course, anyone can retire at pretty much any time, but by timing his retirement announcement prior to his shoulder surgery; his actions gave his employer, Huntington Ingalls, Incorporated, a legitimate reason to dispute any findings of disability. Mr. Moody announced his retirement on August 1, 2011. And company policy required that his last day of work be on October 31, 2011. He again did his case no favors by not seeking medical attention for his shoulder injury until November 2, 2011.

Because (according to the facts of the case as stated in the appeals ruling) Mr. Moody suffered his shoulder injury at some time period between August 1 and October 31 of 2011, he could have helped his case by seeking medical treatment somewhere during that period. Even if he had not sought medical attention until October 31, he would have still had some sort of lost earnings claim. He snoozed a bit and, as a result, he lost.