by Vince A. Toreno, Esq.

Last month the Court of Appeals issued two decisions dealing with laws that come into play when a claimant is released to return to work with light-duty restrictions – O.C.G.A. § 34-9-104 and O.C.G.A. § 34-9-240. The two cases are summarized below:

O.C.G.A. § 34-9-104

In MARTA v. Thompson, the court clarified that an employer may unilaterally convert a claimant’s benefits from temporary total to temporary partial when the claimant has been released to return to work with restrictions for 52 consecutive weeks and has not actually returned to work during that time period. MARTA served the claimant with a WC-104 when the claimant was released to return to work with restrictions. The claimant then worked in the employer’s transitional light-duty program for one year after which she was not allowed to remain in the program. At that point, the claimant was still unable to return to regular duty work and stopped working. MARTA reinstated TTD benefits and later unilaterally converted the claimant’s benefits to temporary partial because the claimant was not working at the time of the conversion and had been capable of light-duty work for 52 consecutive weeks.

The issue was whether MARTA could consider the time period during which the claimant was working light-duty as part of the 52 week period. The court said no – an employer cannot include the period of time an employee works with restrictions in calculating the 52 week period. The court pointed out that the Workers’ Compensation Act is a “humanitarian measure that should be liberally construed to effectuate its purpose” and the purpose of this statute is to allow the employer to convert when the employee is released to work with restrictions but has not actually returned to work. (MARTA v. Thompson, No. A13A2304, March 27, 2014).

O.C.G.A. § 34-9-240

Interestingly, the court took a more technical approach in another recent case involving the reinstatement of benefits after a claimant stopped working a light-duty position offered to her by her employer. In Technical College System of Georgia v. McGruder, the employer made a 240 job offer and the claimant returned to work at the light duty position. However, she performed the job for less than 15 days because her primary care doctor provided a letter totally disabling her because of serious, non-work related medical problems. The employer did not immediately resume payment of the claimant’s TTD benefits on the grounds she had been offered a suitable light-duty job and had stopped working for reasons unrelated to her work injury. The court ruled against the employer.

The Court of Appeals pointed out that the plain language of the statute requires benefits to be reinstated, without exception, when the employee is unable to perform the job for more than 15 working days. This is true even where the claimant stops working for reasons unrelated to the work injury. The employer is still entitled to a hearing addressing suitability of the job and seeking reimbursement of benefits paid.

In our experience, the likelihood of getting the judge to order repayment of past TTD benefits paid is small but a hearing should be requested to get future benefits suspended. Another option is to file a motion at the same time a hearing is requested. While a hearing may take two to three months to be heard, a motion might be decided in less than 30 days after the claimant leaves the job and could result in a faster suspension of benefits.

In this case, the court followed a precise, literal reading of the statute to award benefit while in the MARTA case, the court interpreted the law more broadly but still awarded benefits. The guiding principal is that courts will often interpret the laws and Board Rules in in different ways to favor the award of benefits where the law can be reasonably interpreted to do so. (Technical College System of Georgia v. McGruder, A13A2353, March 21, 2014).