By Elizabeth Ligon

 The Court of Appeals recently released two decisions that analyzed issues relating to disability – specifically, the burden of proving futility – post-Wilkes v. City of Greenville. In Adame v. Aerotek, an unpublished decision, Plaintiff sustained a low back injury in June 2013. After receiving conservative treatment with multiple doctors, Plaintiff was ultimately released with permanent work restrictions of no lifting over 40 pounds, with frequent lifting and carrying of objects weighing up to 25 pounds. Plaintiff sought ongoing temporary total disability benefits, but the Industrial Commission found he was not entitled to indemnity benefits or vocational assistance because Plaintiff failed to meet his burden of proving disability. Plaintiff appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals noted Wilkes clarified which party had the burden of proving disability. Once a plaintiff meets the burden of establishing disability, the burden then shifts to defendants to show that suitable jobs are available, and that the plaintiff was capable of obtaining a suitable job, considering both his or her physical and vocational limitations. The Court reiterated that a plaintiff is not required to produce expert testimony in order to prove futility. While the Court acknowledged that Plaintiff had the initial burden of proving disability, the Court also referred to the burden as a “burden of production.” (emphasis added)

In Adame, the plaintiff was a 55-year-old man from Mexico who attended “something like high school” in Mexico until the age of 12. The Court of Appeals specifically concluded that Plaintiff met his “burden of production of evidence of futility” by presenting evidence of his age, lack of education, lack of vocational training, limited fluency in written English, and lifting restrictions. Therefore, the burden shifted to Defendant to show that suitable jobs were available to Plaintiff, and that Plaintiff was capable of obtaining a suitable job in light of his physical and vocational limitations. Defendant relied on the testimony of a vocational expert who had prepared labor market surveys in order to meet their burden. However, Defendant’s vocational expert had very limited knowledge of Plaintiff’s education and qualifications, and the Court found Plaintiff could not meet the minimum qualifications of most of the jobs that were identified as suitable. Therefore, Defendant had not met its burden, and the Industrial Commission erred in relying on the vocational expert’s testimony.  Also the case was remanded for the Commission to determine whether Plaintiff’s incapacity to earn was caused by his work injury, the third prong of Hilliard.

In the second case, Neckles v. Harris Teeter, a published decision, Plaintiff was 68 years old at the time of hearing and was originally from Grenada. His prior employment history consisted of working as a meat cutter, which required lifting and moving up to 100 pounds on a regular basis. He sustained an injury to his back, right hip, and right extremities in 2009 while attempting to move a box of meat. In 2010, he underwent an FCE and demonstrated the ability to perform in the light physical demand category. In 2011, a vocational rehabilitation specialist opined that it would be “difficult” to place Plaintiff in the open job market on a full-time basis due to his work history, limited transferable skills, age, and lack of computer knowledge. No additional testing or analysis was completed.

In 2014, Defendants requested a hearing, contending Plaintiff was no longer disabled. The deputy commissioner awarded Plaintiff ongoing indemnity benefits on the grounds of futility. On appeal, the Full Commission reversed in part, concluding Plaintiff had failed to meet his burden of proving futility. The Court of Appeals reversed. Defendants appealed to the Supreme Court, who remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of Wilkes.

On remand, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Commission failed to make necessary findings regarding the effect of Plaintiff’s compensable injury on his ability to earn wages. The Court stated that if a plaintiff can show total incapacity for work, he is not required to also show that a job search would be futile. Here, Plaintiff offered evidence of numerous physical and vocational limitations, including his work history, limited transferrable skills, age, lack of computer knowledge, other chronic health problems, and communication barriers. The burden then shifted to Defendants to show that suitable jobs were available, and Plaintiff was capable of getting one, considering his limitations. The Court reversed and remanded, ordering the Commission “to take additional evidence if necessary and make specific findings addressing plaintiff’s wage-earning capacity, considering plaintiff’s compensable [injury] in the context of all of the pre-existing and co-existing conditions bearing upon his wage-earning capacity.”

Takeaway 

Taken together, it appears that the Court of Appeals wants the Commission to specifically address all pre-existing and co-existing conditions in their analysis of disability. What is unclear is whether the Court of Appeals is effectively transferring the burden of disproving disability to the defendants. Presumably, every plaintiff will have some level of pre-existing or co-existing conditions. The question remains what level would be enough to satisfy the plaintiff’s burden of producing evidence of futility.