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Pa. SC: Woman can keep her workers' comp benefits

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Jul 28, 2011


HARRISBURG, Pa. (Legal Newsline) -- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week reversed the decision of a lower court, awarding workers' compensation benefits to a woman whose painful hand condition forced her to leave her job.

At issue is the degree of specificity with which a claimant must describe a work-related injury to his or her employer pursuant to Section 312 of the state's Workers' Compensation Act .

Appellant Anne Marie Morack began working for appellee Gentex Corp. at its facility in Carbondale, Pa., in 1960. Morack worked there until Jan. 17, 2005, when she notified her supervisor that she was leaving due to pain in her hands.

That same day, Morack made an appointment with a doctor and he issued her a note excusing her from work.

Morack testified she delivered the note to Gentex's guardhouse and, pursuant to Gentex's policy, Morack called Gentex for the next five days to update Gentex on her condition, each day indicating she could not work because of swelling in her hands.

Morack also applied for short-term disability benefits on Feb. 2, 2005. On the short-term disability application form, she indicated she did not believe her injury was work-related. She listed as her ailments swelling in her arms, hands, knees and ankles, and attributed these to pre-existing fibromyalgia and high blood pressure, which were diagnosed in 1993.

Morack eventually was referred to Dr. Eugene Grady, a board certified rheumatologist, who diagnosed her with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and flexor tendonitis in her left thumb with triggering of her left ring finger, a right wrist cartilage tear, right-sided DeQuervain's tendonitis, left thumb flexor tendonitis, left fourth digit flexor tendonitis and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Grady ruled out fibromyalgia and high blood pressure as the cause of Morack's hand injuries, and concluded her injuries were work-related.

On March 24, 2005, Grady released Morack to return to work with a limitation of no repetitive lifting of more than 1 pound or continuous standing for longer than 45 minutes. No such position was made available to Morack by Gentex, and Morack's employment was subsequently terminated.

On Oct. 9, 2006, Morack filed a workers' compensation claim petition. The workers' comp judge found in favor of Morack, concluding she suffered a work-related injury on Jan. 17, 2005. The judge concluded that Morack gave timely and adequate notice under the Act, and awarded her weekly compensation benefits of $432.11.

Gentex appealed to the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board, which affirmed the decision of the judge.

The board noted that Morack initially was unsure if her injuries were work-related, but, after learning they were, she called the human resources manager and left a message indicating she had "work-related problems." The board concluded Morack provided adequate notice of her work-related injuries, and affirmed the judge's award of benefits.

Gentex subsequently appealed to the Commonwealth Court, arguing Morack failed to timely notify it of her work-related injuries pursuant to Section 311, and that she failed to sufficiently describe her injuries pursuant to Section 312.

The court acknowledged that the record was unclear regarding whether Morack actually notified Gentex within 120 days of Grady's diagnosis, but recognized, because Morack was the party prevailing below, she was entitled to all reasonable inferences from the evidence. Finding there was no indication Morack delayed in providing notice, the court concluded Morack's notice was timely under Section 311.

The court concluded, however, that Morack did not comply with Section 312 with respect to the description of her injury. Thus, the court reversed the board's decision upholding the judge's award of benefits.

The state's high court, in its July 20 majority opinion, concluded that what constitutes "adequate notice," pursuant to Section 312, is a fact-intensive inquiry, "taking into consideration the totality of the circumstances."

"Although Section 312 requires a claimant to inform his or her employer that the claimant received a work-related injury at a specified time and place, the notice only need be conveyed in ordinary language, can take into consideration the context and setting of the injury, and may be provided over a period of time or a series of communications, if the exact nature of the injury and its work-relatedness is not immediately known by the claimant," Justice Debra McCloskey Todd wrote for the Court.

Todd said Morack's case, in terms of providing notice, was not "letter perfect."

However, the humanitarian purpose of the Act directs that "a meritorious claim ought not, if possible, be defeated for technical reasons," the justice wrote.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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