Disability Compensation End One Choosen Retire - Case Summary

The Parties

Stanley Christie was a carpenter for Georgia-Pacific Company. Georgia-Pacific is a pulp and paper company based in Atlanta.

 The Facts

Mr. Christie injured his back in June of 1999, during the course of his employment. While he did return to work, he eventually needed back surgery, which was performed in 2004. He returned to work but there were restrictions on his employment. He was not allowed to lift more than thirty pounds or to sit or stand for more than two consecutive hours.

By 2007 or 2008, there were concerns that his continued employment as a carpenter could aggravate his back condition. At that time, he began to exclusively work for Georgia-Pacific as a safety inspector at the company’s Portland warehouses.

In late 2010, Mr. Christie was that his union planned to eliminate its early retirement option. This was to be effective on January 1, 2011.  Eliminating this option meant that Mr. Christie, who was 56 years of age at the time, would end up ineligible to receive pension income until he was 62. In the belief that his work-related back condition could potentially prevent his continuing employment until he was 62, Mr. Christie retired on December 1, 2010. This was with a reduction in pension benefits on account of his early retirement.  Mr. Christie’s back condition deteriorated after his retirement and, in December 2012, his treating physician, Dr. Anderson, imposed additional work restrictions on him.  Mr. Christie then sought compensation under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act for permanent total disability.

The Legal Timeline

The Administrative Law Judge determined that Mr. Christie was physically capable of working as a safety inspector by the time he retired in December of 2010.  In support of this finding, the Administrative Law Judge observed that Dr. Anderson first said on December 3, 2012 that Mr. Christie could not return to work as a safety inspector.

However, the Administrative Law Judge also noted that Mr. Christie testified that at the time of his retirement he was capable of working; however, he was unsure as to how much longer. The Administrative Law Judge found, though, that Mr. Christie is not barred by his retirement from receiving compensation for permanent total disability. This was due to the fact that his decision to stop working in December 2010 was, per the Administrative Law Judge, “involuntary.”  That is, the Administrative Law Judge found that Mr. Christie retired, at least in part, due to his concerns that his work injury would keep him from working until the full retirement age of 62. And as result of not being able to make it to 62, he would, therefore, have no pension income prior to that time.

Since Mr. Christie’s retirement was motivated at least in part because of his work-related injury, the Administrative Law Judge determined that Mr. Christie’s receipt of post-retirement benefits would not be precluded.  The Administrative Law Judge also found that Mr. Christie became permanently totally disabled on December 3, 2012, when Dr. Anderson ordered increased work restrictions. In the absence of any suitable alternate employment for Mr. Christie at that time, the Administrative Law Judge ordered Georgia-Pacific to pay Mr. Christie compensation for permanent total disability, from that date onwards.

The Appeal

On appeal, Georgia-Pacific argued that, since Mr. Christie was still capable of working as a safety inspector in 2010, and that he did not suffer any loss of earning capacity, that he would be prevented from receiving benefits starting in December of 2012.

The Benefits Review Board agreed with Georgia-Pacific’s arguments and it thereby reversed the Administrative Law Judge’s decision, finding that there was no loss of wage-earning capacity once Mr. Christie retired for reasons which were unrelated to his injury.

The Ruling on Appeal

The Benefits Review Board cited Moody v. Huntington Ingalls, Inc., wherein a decision was issued on the same day the Administrative Law Judge issued his decision in this, the Christie case.  In Moody, the claimant was working in suitable alternative employment at the time of his voluntary retirement.  Two months after that, he underwent surgery for a previous work-related injury.  The claimant in Moody sought and was awarded, temporary total disability benefits for his recuperation period after the surgery.

However, on appeal, the Benefits Review Board reversed the Administrative Law Judge’s awarding of benefits.  The Board decided that as the claimant in Moody had kept on working in a suitable position until his voluntary retirement, he did not have a loss of wage-earning capacity due to his injury.  Reasoning that the Moody claimant’s retirement had already resulted in his complete loss of wage-earning capacity by the time of his surgery, the Benefits Review Board thereby held that the Moody claimant was not entitled to temporary total disability benefits for his post-retirement period, during which he recovered from his work-related shoulder injury.

The Benefits Review Board then, in the Christie matter, ruled that an employee cannot be entitled to receive a total disability award after he retires for reasons which are not related to his work injury. This is due to the fact that there is no loss of wage-earning capacity due to the injury.

The Takeaway

While Mr. Christie’s actions in going for an early retirement were certainly understandable, the Benefits Review Board felt that his retirement cut off his disability payments. Essentially, Mr. Christie (and other such persons receiving disability payments) receives compensation because he can no longer work but wants to. However, retirement, whether early or late, voluntary or involuntary, changes all of that. The circumstance of no longer wishing to work means that there simply can be no disability. While Mr. Christie may be entitled to some other form of benefits (most likely from the United States government), that does not keep Georgia-Pacific on the hook, paying disability compensation forever. Rather, the company’s obligations end when an employee such as Mr. Christie’s retirement starts.

Date issued: March 7, 2017
Stanley Christie vs. Georgia-Pacific Company and Ace-American Insurance Company/ESIS
See: https://www.dol.gov/brb/decisions/lngshore/published/16-0321.htm