A juvenile justice officer rejected a light duty assignment after a shoulder injury. Her employer said too bad and ended her salary continuation benefits. How did the court decide?
Connie Yerby was injured while working as a juvenile justice officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS). Yerby fell at work and injured her head, neck, shoulder, back and right arm.
DPS began paying Yerby salary continuation benefits after the injury. It then referred her to a doctor, who diagnosed Yerby with a right rotator cuff strain, as well as cervical and thoracic strains.
The doctor said Yerby could return for light-duty work, as long as she performed no lifting with her right arm.
So DPS proposed the light duty assignment: Yerby could supervise, monitor and conduct bed checks of students in the housing units. She wouldn’t be the first staff member to enter a housing unit, and she wasn’t allowed to restrain students or perform any lifting with her right arm.
Yerby refused the assignment. She said her injuries would limit her ability to defend herself from a possible attack from a violent juvenile resident.
In response, DPS terminated her salary continuation benefits. Yerby said she’d return to work if she didn’t have to work alone, enter students’ rooms, or have direct contact with students. DPS denied the conditions.
A month later, Yerby filed a request for a hearing with the North Carolina Industrial Commission.
A vocational rehabilitation expert testified at the hearing that the proposed light-duty role would create “a constant element of danger due to the chance of being put in direct contact with students.”
Yerby wasn’t required to restrain students in the light duty role. But the expert said she wasn’t immune to an attack and wouldn’t be able to properly defend herself.
The Deputy Industrial Commissioner agreed and ruled that DPS wrongfully terminated Yerby’s salary continuation. DPS appealed, and the Full Industrial Commission again ruled in favor of Yerby.
DPS fought the case up to the Court of Appeals of North Carolina and, once again, its argument was shot down. The employer argued that if a light duty assignment complies with a doctor’s recommendation, those duties are properly assigned.
Technically, the light duty assignment did comply with the doctor’s orders: It didn’t require Yerby to lift her right arm. However, the assignment exposed her to risks, which made it unsuitable in the court’s eyes.
Here’s how the appeals court put it:
“As this case indicates, even when an officer is medically capable of performing certain work duties under normal circumstances, other factors – such as the risk that the normal circumstances unexpectedly devolve into violent confrontations with juvenile offenders – may compel the Industrial Commission to conclude that those duties are not ones to which the officer may be assigned.”
The appeals court rejected DPS’s argument and awarded the salary continuation benefits for Yerby.
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(Yerby v. North Carolina Department of Public Safety, Court of Appeals of North Carolina, No. COA15-620, 3/1/16)