New Ninth Circuit Court Decision Protects Longshore Retirees
An interesting case entitled Christie v. Georgia-Pacific Co. recently came before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The central issue of the case was whether disability benefits were available to a retired longshoreman. In deciding the case, the Ninth Circuit Court essentially followed the lead of the Fourth Circuit Court, who had issued an opinion in favor of the retiree in Moody v. Huntington Ingalls Inc. in January of 2018.
It appears that Federal Courts of Appeal are lining up to protect the benefits of retirees!
The Facts of Christie v. Georgia-Pacific Co. Longshore Case
In 1999, Mr. Christie injured his back moving bags of concrete in the course of his duties as a longshoreman. After receiving treatment, he returned to work. In 2004, five years after the initial accident, it was determined that Mr. Christie needed back surgery as a result of the injury.
In 2006, because of post-surgical physical limitations, Mr. Christie was reassigned to a new position with lighter duties. In 2010, Mr. Christie became aware that his employer was about to eliminate its early retirement program. Because of continuing health issues as a result of his injury, Mr. Christie believed that it was unlikely that he would be able to work for an additional six years to his full retirement age. Therefore, he decided to take the early retirement package while it was still available, even though he was only 55.
Not long after Mr. Christie retired, it was determined that he would require additional medical treatment. His doctors determined that he had reached maximum medical improvement but that he could not return to work as a longshoreman. As of December 31, 2012, Mr. Christie was permanently restricted from several physical activities.
Longshore Worker Early Retirement Due to Injury
At a hearing before an administrative law judge, the central issue boiled down to the reason for Mr. Christie’s decision to take early retirement. After taking everything into consideration, the judge determined that the early retirement package was not the sole motivation for Mr. Christie’s decision. Rather, Mr. Christie believed that his injury prevented him from working the additional 6 years until full retirement age. Prior to being injured, his intent had been to work until full retirement age was reached.
The Benefits Review Board did not agree with the judge, however, and determined that Mr. Christie lost wages because he decided to take the early retirement package, not because of the work-related injury.
Upon appeal, the Ninth Circuit sided with the administrative judge, determining that “employees are entitled to obtain compensation for a permanent disability arising out of a work-related injury.” Therefore, the applicant’s decision to take early retirement did not prevent him from receiving permanent total disability benefits.
The panel further held that evidence in the record supported the judge’s findings. Mr. Christie was indeed disabled: he had achieved maximum medical improvement, could no longer return to his previous employment, and the employer was not able to provide suitable alternative employment.
The Ninth Circuit’s opinion stated that the definition of “disability” in the context of the Longshore Act “makes no reference to retirement or its timing, nor to whether an employee decides to retire voluntarily or involuntarily.” Rather, it simply means an inability to work, or earn the same amount in wages as an employee because of an injury suffered at work.
The importance of the Christie decision is that it offers additional protection for injured workers who retire. As the Ninth Circuit (and previously, the Fourth Circuit) indicated, there is a difference between being unwilling to work and being unable to work. The Ninth Circuit further pointed out that retirement refers to a specific job, not to every job everywhere.
If you have been injured at work and you are considering retirement, seeking the assistance of an experienced workers comp attorney can help you determine the best timing, and what options you have in terms of maximizing your benefits. Our workers comp attorneys have the experience and expertise that you need to help you make these critical decisions.
Long Beach Longshore Workers Comp Attorneys
If you were injured or made ill while working in a maritime environment, we encourage you to call on our skilled and experienced Long Beach Longshore workers Comp attorneys. We have obtained millions of dollars in settlements for longshore, maritime and dock workers in Southern California and across the United States.
We offer a free consultation to evaluate your case and advise you on the best legal avenue to pursue in your unique situation, to ensure you collect the maximum compensation for which you qualify.
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