By James W. Cushing
Special to the Legal
The matter of Krushauskas v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, 56 A.3d 64 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2012), involved a claimant who suffered a work-related injury while working as a stock picker for General Motors. Claimant Thomas Krushauskas filed a penalty petition against GM alleging it unilaterally suspended his benefits without any additional agreement or order. Simultaneously, Krushauskas voluntarily entered GM’s attrition plan and accepted early retirement. The court noted that no one was forced into the attrition plan and, in fact, Krushauskas had 45 days to revoke the decision to enter it. Krushauskas argued that he did not intend to retire and was simply taking advantage of the plan offered.
The court ruled that GM violated the Workers’ Compensation Act when it unilaterally – without agreement or court order as a result of Krushauskas’s retirement – suspended Krushauskas’ benefits because of him retiring per his entrance into the attrition plan. Generally, an employer is supposed to file a petition specifically requesting the relief sought. Despite this, the court noted that it has never required unreasonable strictness in workers’ compensation pleadings. Unfortunately for Krushauskas, because the court also ruled that he did, indeed, retire, the unilateral suspension did not cause any loss in workers’ compensation benefits owed to him.
The court’s ruling that Krushauskas did retire, contrary to his argument that he did not actually intend to do so, was based on a credibility determination of Krushauskas’ testimony. As stated above, Krushauskas’ representations in the documentation for the attrition plan indicated retirement and the court found those representations likely to be true.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the court’s ruling is that it clarified and consolidated previous rulings that a workers’ compensation judge has the authority to suspend/terminate a claimant’s benefits without a formal petition from the employer as long as doing so would not be prejudicial to the claimant. A claimant having an opportunity to defend him or herself, and/or having adequate notice, would tend toward the matter lacking prejudice against the claimant even if the workers’ compensation procedures were not followed with precision.
The court noted, based on the facts presented, that Krushauskas certainly had sufficient notice and knew a suspension of benefits was possible. Indeed, the court drew significance from the fact that when GM argued that Krushauskas voluntarily retired, he objected on the basis of relevance, and not surprise, which would have been the objection if he did not have sufficient notice. Furthermore, Krushauskas never attempted to submit additional evidence to oppose the argument that he voluntarily retired.
The court further indicated that where someone accepts a retirement pension, as Krushauskas did here, then the employer is entitled to a suspension of benefits. Benefits will be suspended unless the claimant can show that he is seeking employment or he was forced into retirement because of a work-related injury. In the instant case, Krushauskas clearly accepted a retirement pension and never testified to seeking new or continued employment.
When collecting workers’ compensation, be sure to consider all implications before accepting a retirement plan or pension, as the workers’ compensation benefits may be terminated long before expected.