Futility Frustration: NC Supreme Court Affirms Workers’ Comp Decision on Disability
A decision has been an issued by the North Carolina Supreme Court in a case that we have been following for quite a few years: Griffin v. Absolute Fire Control, Inc. The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling from the Court of Appeals that was issued in January 2020. The case is now remanded back to the Full Commission. Though we will have to wait and see what the Full Commission does, it is not a good disability decision for defendants.
For some factual history, Plaintiff worked as a pipe fitter and injured his back in 2014. He returned to work a month later with restrictions. His pre-injury job was outside his restrictions, so he was offered, and accepted, work in the fabrication shop. Plaintiff was ultimately assigned permanent restrictions. In 2016, Plaintiff underwent non-work related heart surgery and asked to return to work in the field, stating that walking would improve his back condition. Defendants allowed Plaintiff to return to work in the field as a helper. Plaintiff later requested a hearing seeking a determination on the suitability of the job. The Deputy Commissioner concluded Plaintiff was not disabled. The Full Commission determined the fabrication shop position was suitable because it was a real, actual position. The field helper position was never offered as suitable employment, and was classified as an accommodation offered to Plaintiff at his request. Therefore, Plaintiff failed to prove disability. Plaintiff appealed.
At the Court of Appeals level, Plaintiff made a futility argument. Under Russell, an employee can meet his burden of proving disability by showing he is capable of some work, but it would be futile to look for other work because of pre-existing conditions like age or lack of education. The Commission made factual findings that Plaintiff failed to show it would be futile. The Court of Appeals noted the Full Commission found that Plaintiff was 49 years old, had a 9th grade education, and worked as a pipe-fitter. Plaintiff had a permanent 20-pound lifting restriction, would sometimes need to leave work because of pain, and reached MMI in 2017. The Court of Appeals did not see how the Full Commission could conclude Plaintiff presented no evidence on futility given its findings were similar to other cases where courts supported futility. These factors included age, education, work experience, and restrictions.
The Court also disagreed with the suitable employment analysis. “Make work” positions are those that have been altered such that they are not ordinarily available on the job market. The Court reasoned that, whether a position existed with employers, beyond a given employer in a specific case, is an essential part of the make work analysis, as the Act does not allow employers to avoid paying benefits by offering a job that does not exist outside of that employers’ business.
Because the Commission’s findings failed to address whether the job was available with employers other than Defendant-Employer, the Commission’s assessment was flawed. Additionally, the Commission’s finding that “Defendant’s unique hiring practice of hiring based upon word of mouth and personal recommendations” meant the position was “available to individuals in the marketplace,” exemplified this shortcoming in the Court’s view and defined the marketplace based on the employer’s practices.
Now that this decision has been affirmed by the Supreme Court, the case will go back to the Full Commission for further review on remand. Consequently, we will need to see what the Full Commission does on remand before knowing the full impact of the Griffin decision. However, we anticipate that it will be argued that even where a plaintiff is working with his pre-injury employer, and there are jobs available to him with the pre-injury employer, the plaintiff could still prove disability if there is no evidence that the offered position is available in the general marketplace. We will continue to monitor this case while it is on remand to the Full Commission, but it is worth noting that there are still facts which are unique to this case that may allow this case to be distinguished going forward. For example, the employer in this case had a unique hiring practice, and the higher courts did not look favorably on this. Further, this case does not eliminate other “futility” factors that need to be present like age, education level, and work experience, to demonstrate that returning to work is futile
Plaintiffs routinely appear to rely on the futility argument for proving disability when they do not conduct their own reasonable job search. Defendants will need to analyze cases with that fact pattern very carefully. If the plaintiff has work restrictions, but has done no job search at all, be prepared to defend a disability argument based upon futility.