It’s a fact: Dust, temperature and humidity factor into asthma attacks. But how can you tell if asthma is an ongoing disability?
Here’s what happened in this case:
Hughey Payne worked for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) as a Metro Station manager.
One summer, Payne had trouble breathing because malfunctioning air conditioning in the station created high heat and humidity.
He received a requested transfer to another station.
A year later, the air conditioning in that station stopped working, and Payne became dizzy, faint and very weak one day on the job.
He left work and hasn’t returned since on advice from his doctor that he should avoid the “dusty, underground station,” and that he needs to work in an environment “without temperature extremes to avoid worsening of his asthma.”
Payne filed for and received disability benefits.
An administrative law judge (ALJ) made these findings:
- Payne’s injury arose out of and in the course of his employment
- His physical condition “is medically causally related to the work incident” (malfunctioning air conditioning)
- His exposure to dust and excessive heat while working as a station manager aggravated his asthma, and
- The medical evidence supported Payne’s claim that the work exposure to dust and heat prevented him from returning to work in the Metro tunnels.
His employer, WMATA, appealed.
It presented testimony from a certified industrial hygienist that the dust levels inside the Metro stations were 1/100th of the limit set by OSHA.
The ALJ again ruled in favor of Payne, saying that the hygienist wasn’t a medical doctor and couldn’t determine whether those dust levels were sufficiently low for Payne to return to work.
The case eventually went to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
It noted that one of the doctors in the case was asked: If a person is affected by dust, and a report says a work area meets OSHA air quality standards, would that person be released to go back to work? The doctor replied in that case, it wouldn’t be the dust that was causing the asthma problem.
On top of that, the appeals court found the ALJ had used the wrong burden of proof to determine whether Payne’s disability was ongoing. For that reason, the ALJ couldn’t discount the testimony from the industrial hygienist.
The case has been sent back for a rehearing. (A PDF of the appeals court’s entire opinion can be downloaded here.)
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Cite: WMATA v. Payne, DC Court of Appeals, No. 08-AA01207, 4/15/10.