Parking Enforcement Officer Denied Accidental Disability Retirement

The Massachusetts Contributory Retirement Appeal Board recently upheld the denial of accidental disability benefits on the grounds that the applicant failed to establish that her employment as a Parking Enforcement Officer in the City of Boston resulted in her disability.

Claire Collins was a parking enforcement officer with the Boston Traffic Department from 1992 to 2005. Prior to working as a parking enforcement officer, she had suffered a back strain or sprain while working at a dry cleaners, and had lost two days of work. During her years as a parking enforcement officer, she had multiple slip and fall injuries causing back strain or sprain. She lost, at most, five weeks work time from any single injury, and returned to work without restrictions, although she worked with back pain following a 1993 injury. She received workers’ compensation for the injuries that caused her to lose work time. Her last reported on-the-job injury was in January 2003.

Ms. Collins’s back problems grew progressively worse, and when she could not walk adequately to perform her job, she retired early on May 31, 2005, more than two and one-half years after her last reported work injury.

She continued to attempt to work, taking two jobs that required driving and another as a housekeeper. These efforts lasted only briefly, with the longest period of employment thereafter of two and one-half weeks. She could not handle the driving jobs because of back spasms; she also had difficulty picking up objects.

On March 20, 2008, Ms. Collins applied for accidental disability retirement.  In her application, she stated that she had lumbar radiculopathy [nerve compression in the lower spine that can cause pain], facet joint arthopathy [arthritis of the facet joints of the spine],  and a bulging disk with narrowing of the left lateral recess. She alleged in her application that these medical problems were caused by seven personal injuries she sustained on the job.

A PERAC medical panel was convened and each physician opined that Collins was physically incapable of performing the essential duties of her job, and that her incapacity was likely permanent. However, only one member of the panel answered the question of causation in Collins’ favor.

One doctor’s assessment was that “these are chronic degenerative changes in her spine, unrelated to any particular work accident, and similarly, although she is disabled from work, that disability does not appear clearly related to any of her. . . work injuries.” Ms. Collins was found to have degenerative arthritis and degenerative disc disease. Another doctor noted, “this is the natural progression of underlying degenerative arthritis and degenerative disc disease, and is not the result of any specific injury at work. Gradual and increasing problems are anticipated. In my opinion said incapacity is not the proximate result of a work injury sustained on account of which retirement is claimed.”

On January 10, 2010, the Boston Retirement Board denied Ms. Collins’s application on the basis of lack of causation. Ms. Collins claimed she was eligible for an accidental disability retirement because the work-related back injuries aggravated her underlying back problems. However, the majority of the medical panel adequately addressed and ultimately rejected this theory.

Because the medical panel found that Ms. Collins’s incapacity was not job-related, and there has been no showing that the panel applied an erroneous standard in reaching this conclusion, the Boston Retirement Board’s decision denying her application for accidental disability retirement was affirmed on appeal.