Ohio Man Denied Benefits For Not Returning To The Work Force, Ohio Supreme Court Says

Liz Carey

Columbus, OH (WorkersCompensation.com) – A former postal worker was denied permanent total disability benefits last week by the Ohio Supreme Court that found he could work, but chose not to.

Timothy Bonnlander was severely injured in a work-related car accident in 1992. As a result, he was awarded workers’ compensation for physical and psychological conditions. After the accident, he worked as a laborer and construction worker from 1994 to 2000, and as a mail carrier and custodian for the U.S. Postal Service from 2000 through 2009, court records said. He has not worked since 2009.

In 2014, he applied for permanent total disability and was denied, court documents said.

“In February 2014, Bonnlander applied for PTD compensation. The commission denied that request in September 2014, finding that he could perform sedentary work for up to four hours a day. In its order, the commission noted that Bonnlander’s failure to pursue vocational rehabilitation had reflected negatively on his application. In October 2014, Bonnlander sought a writ of mandamus from the Tenth District vacating the commission’s order,” the court wrote.

Meanwhile, Bonnlander also filed a request for vocational rehabilitation, which the Appellee Industrial Commission granted, the court said.

However, the vocational rehabilitation case manager ran up against roadblocks gathering information – Bonnlander’s psychologist did not respond to multiple requests for information about his return-to-work order, and the managed care organization handling Bonnlander’s case denied requests from the case manager for additional neurological, psychological and physical evaluations.

Instead, the case manager relied on previous evaluations from independent examiner, Dr. Debjani Sinha, who said Bonnlander could return to work for up to four hours per day with accommodations. The case manager also relied on a January 2015 application for wage-loss compensation where Bonnlander’s physician said he could perform sedentary work for up to eight hours a day. The case manager also relied on Bonnlander’s own statements that his memory issues would prevent him from returning to work.

“Without the benefit of reconditioning, or a Neuro-Psychological evaluation, and in just relying on [Bonnlander’s] presentation, pain levels, and applicable physical and psychological restrictions, this VRCM has no confidence he would be able to actively participate in vocational rehab or [be] employable in a competitive labor market. It is therefore the VRCM [sic] opinion, that without increased psychological, physical, and cognitive functional abilities, he is not feasible for vocational rehabilitation or return to work,” the case manager wrote, according to the court.

The Tenth District Court of Appeals found that Bonnlander was capable of working and denied his claim in 2015, which the Supreme Court upheld in 2017.

In 2017, Bonnlander filed a new PTD claim. This one was tentatively approved by a staff hearing officer (SHO), who relied on medical opinions from late 2017. But the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation objected to the tentative order and a different SHO vacated it because of the legal dispute over the issue of PTD.

A third SHO also denied the claim.

“The SHO found that (1) this court had upheld the commission’s 2014 order denying PTD on the grounds that Bonnlander could work part-time, (2) Bonnlander had last worked in late 2008 or early 2009, (3) Bonnlander is receiving federal disability benefits arising from his employment at the post office as well as social-security-disability benefits and Bonnlander had testified that he did not believe that he could receive federal disability benefits if he was working, (4) Bonnlander had not looked for work for several years, at least since September 11, 2014 (the date of the hearing on his 2014 PTD-compensation application), (5) the VRCM “was without an accurate assessment of [Bonnlander’s] cognitive function,” and (6) Bonnlander’s “pursuit of vocational rehabilitation over roughly a three week period” was not sufficient to establish “a meaningful effort in pursuing all reasonable avenues of accomplishing a return to sustained remunerative employment albeit on a part-time basis,” court records said.

Bonnlander appealed. But the Tenth District agreed with the third SHO that Bonnlander had abandoned the work force.

The Supreme Court, on appeal, agreed.

“We reject Bonnlander’s first proposition of law. His reliance on medical evidence from 2015 and 2017 overlooks the fact that the evidence the commission relied on in making its finding of voluntary abandonment dated from 2014 at the latest. And an injured worker who voluntarily abandons the workforce for reasons unrelated to the allowed conditions prior to becoming permanently and totally disabled is not entitled to PTD compensation,” the court wrote.

The Supreme Court upheld the Tenth District’s decision to deny Bonnlander PTD benefits.

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