Impact of air quality on ability to return to work must be clarified
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority v. District of Columbia Department of Employment Services and Payne, No. 08-AA-1207 (D.C. Ct. App. 04/15/10).
Ruling: The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the finding that the claimant became temporarily totally disabled when a malfunctioning air conditioning system at work exacerbated his preexisting asthma. However, it returned the case for the administrative law judge to determine whether the claimant had an ongoing disability.
What it means: Once an employee presents sufficient evidence to trigger the presumption of compensability, the employer can rebut that presumption only by presenting evidence that is "specific and comprehensive enough to sever" the connection between the disability and the work-related event. A finding of compensability does not automatically entitle the employee to benefits for ongoing disability, however. The employee must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that workplace conditions prevent him from returning to work.
Summary: A subway station manager requested a transfer after he had trouble breathing because of high heat and humidity and a malfunctioning air conditioning system. He became dizzy when the air conditioner stopped working at the new station. He was awarded temporary total disability benefits for the aggravation of his preexisting asthma. The administrative law judge also determined that exposure to dust and heat prevented the manager from returning to work in the subway tunnels. The Court of Appeals determined that substantial evidence supported the finding that the manager was rendered temporarily totally disabled by the exacerbation of his asthma. However, it reversed the finding that he had an ongoing disability because of the malfunctioning air conditioner. It directed the ALJ to determine whether the preponderance of evidence established that the manager's work conditions prevented him from returning to work.
The court pointed out that the ALJ erroneously stated that the claimant's burden was only to "present substantial credible evidence that he has a disability entitling him to the requested level of benefits." Instead, the claimant had to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that his disability was ongoing. Because the ALJ did not make a finding using the correct standard, and the evidence did not clearly favor either side, the court could not make a determination about the current condition of the air quality inside the station.
An independent medical examiner opined that the claimant could return to work as a station manager as long as the air conditioning system was working properly, but there was conflicting evidence as to whether the workplace would continue to expose him to excessive temperatures. Therefore, it returned the case to the ALJ.
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July 19, 2010
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