The full Tennessee Supreme Court recently reversed a Panel decision thus reinstating the trial court's award of 90% permanent partial disability finding that the voluntary retirement was related to the work injuries and the employee acted reasonably.
In Yang v. Nissan N. Am., Inc., 2014 Tenn. LEXIS 607, 2014 WL 3893058 (Tenn. Aug. 11, 2014), the Employee began working for Nissan in February of 2004. On January 16, 2008, the Employee suffered a job-related injury to his left shoulder requiring medical treatment and light duty. On March 4, 2008, the Employee suffered an injury to his right shoulder, but continued his light-duty work until March 12, 2008 when he thereafter underwent surgery on his left shoulder and subsequently his right shoulder. On August 1, 2008, the Employer offered an early retirement or buyout to all of its manufacturing technicians. On August 26, 2008, the Employee resigned his employment.
At trial, the parties stipulated many facts, including that the Employee sustained a 12% impairment to the body as a whole as a result of his injuries. The extent of the Employee's vocational disability were in dispute.
The trial court found that, prior to his bilateral shoulder injuries, the Employee "enjoyed an excellent relationship with his employer," had an "outstanding work record," and "was a good and excellent employee." The trial court ruled that the Employee did not have a meaningful return to work at any point in time following the left shoulder surgery and, therefore, his permanent partial disability benefits were not capped at one and one-half times his impairment rating.
The Supreme Court agreed with the Panel that if an employee retires, resigns, or declines an offer to return to work for either personal or other reasons that are not related to his workplace injury, the employee has had a meaningful return to work and is subject to the one-and-one-half-times cap. This fact-intensive determination, however, is typically best left to the trial judge who has had the opportunity to observe the witnesses, determine their credibility, and assess "the reasonableness of the employer in attempting to return the employee to work and the reasonableness of the employee in failing to either return to or remain at work." Tryon, 254 S.W.3d at 328. Here, the trial court accredited the explanation of the Employee as to why he accepted the VTP and found his decision to be reasonable and related to his injuries.
As to the determination of the Panel that the Employee did not act reasonably because he accepted the VTP while undergoing treatment and prior to reaching maximum medical improvement, the Supreme Court found this analysis to be misplaced citing Lay v. Scott Cnty. Sheriff's Dep't, 109 S.W.3d 293, 298-99 (Tenn. 2003) where the court declined to hold that "whether a 'meaningful return to work' occurred must be determined after the employee reaches maximum medical improvement." Nothing in T.C.A. § 50-6-241 "requires that the question of whether an employee has had a meaningful return to work with his or her pre-injury employer be evaluated only after the employee has completed treatment and has reached maximum medical improvement."
If you need more information about a Social Security Disability/SSI, personal injury, EEOICPA, long or short-term disability, VA disability, Railroad Retirement Board disability, or a workers compensation matter, please contact the Law Offices of Tony Farmer and John Dreiser for a free case evaluation. We can be reached at (865) 584-1211 or (800) 806-4611. Our office handles claims throughout Tennessee.