Can an employee with a back injury and a history of scoliosis collect disability retirement benefits? A California appeals court said she could if there was a real connection between the injury and her job.
California’s Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District found there was a measurable connection between the worker’s back injury and her job along with medical evidence proving her scoliosis wasn’t a contributing factor.
200-pound man falls down stairs onto her
Charlotte Trent had scoliosis and related back problems until she was 14 years old when she underwent back surgery to have rods implanted to support her spine.
As an adult, Trent got a job with the County of Fresno as an account clerk, which is considered a light-duty position.
Trent was injured at work on March 8, 2012, when a man weighing about 200 pounds fell down a set of stairs Trent was walking up. The man collided with Trent, causing her to fall backwards into a wall “where she struck her ‘whole back and head and buttocks and everything’ against the wall and suffered a cut lip when the patron’s head struck hers.”
22 absences cause ‘hardship’ at work
One month later, after being treated and released from a local hospital, doctors found Trent had several fractures in various parts of her spine. She filed a workers’ compensation claim and received benefits while undergoing extensive medical treatments.
Trent was on medical leave for more than a year, returned to work for a brief time, then went back out on medical leave due to further complications with her injury.
On Nov. 24, 2014, Trent attempted a “work hardening” program under her primary physician’s care. This program saw her returning to work on a part-time basis – four hours a day, five days a week – with ten-minute breaks every hour. However, she was unable to work even under those conditions.
The County claimed Trent failed to provide a doctor’s note for 22 of her absences and terminated her employment on June 17, 2015. The County also claimed Trent and her doctor couldn’t say when she could return to work and that this was causing a hardship for the department she worked in.
After her application for service-connected disability retirement was denied by the Board of the Fresno County Employees’ Retirement Association, Trent petitioned in the state’s superior court for an administrative writ asking the court to overturn the board’s decision. The court overturned the board decision and granted Trent service-connected disability retirement benefits.
‘Real, measurable connection between disability and job’
On appeal with the Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District, the County argued the superior court erred in granting the benefits because Trent’s continued medical problems were related to her scoliosis and not her back injury.
The superior court’s decision was “amply supported by substantial evidence,” according to the appeals court.
The appeals court found there was sufficient proof Trent was permanently incapacitated from performing her job duties due to her work injury. That proof came in the form of her medical records and testimony from her family members and doctors.
Further, the appeals court found there was a real and measurable connection between the disability and the job, which was also supported by substantial evidence. Trent testified that she had scoliosis rods implanted when she was a teenager and had been asymptomatic for decades. Trent’s mother testified that she’d been very athletic throughout her adulthood until the workplace incident occurred.
All of these findings supported the superior court’s decision, and the appeals court upheld the decision to grant Trent disability retirement benefits.