Light Duty Blocks Disability Retirement

In the case of Cesaitis v. Worcester Retirement Board, which was decided on June 2, 2017, Administrative Magistrate Judithann Burke of the Massachusetts Division of Administrative Law Appeals recently upheld the denial of an Accidental Disability Retirement Claim where a Worcester cafeteria worker, who agreed to a modification of his job duties because of a back problem, performed duties not listed in the agreement.

After agreeing to changes in his job description to relieve him from having to perform strenuous activities, the employee took it upon himself to exceed the limits of the new job description and go beyond the physical restrictions set forth in the agreement with his employer. Rather than performing the only the limited and doctor-sanctioned duties set forth in the agreement, he routinely failed to rest and performed bending and lifting activities in order to place items in coolers. He did so because he felt responsible to make sure all of the activities of the cafeteria were performed. The Administrative Magistrate found this to be commendable. However, she ruled that by bending and lifting he undertook work that was inconsistent with the previously agreed upon accommodations designed to address the employee’s back pain.

The Magistrate determined that “in light of the Petitioner’s refusal, (notwithstanding his thought processes and motivations) to restrict his work activities to those set forth in the accommodated job description… the Petitioner does not qualify for an accidental disability retirement.”

The denial is based on the premise that a medical panel is allowed to consider reasonable accommodations in determining whether, under G.L. c. 32 § 7, a public employee is “unable to perform the essential duties of his job and that such disability is likely to be permanent.” There is a duty imposed on the employee to seek a reasonable accommodation from his or her employer to address any temporary or permanent limitations caused by the injury.

It is important to note that this was a civilian non-public safety position and in the case of a Massachusetts firefighter or police officer, there is likely no light duty or reasonable accommodation which would allow an otherwise disabled employee to continue to perform the essential functions of his or her public safety position.