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Court of Appeals Reverses Board's Award Where Claimant Failed to Establish Attempt to Find Work Within Disability, Remands for Further Explanation from Board

On 3/26/20, the Court of Appeals decided O'Donnell v. Erie County, reversing and remanding an Appellate Division decision that the claimant need not demonstrate labor market attachment following her involuntary retirement from the employer of record, PPD classification and the Legislature's subsequent 2017 amendment of WCL §15(3)(w), which eliminated the need for a claimant found entitled to benefits at the time of classification to demonstrate labor market attachment.

The case involved the interpretation of the Court's prior decision in Zamora v. New York Neurological Assoc., which held that where a claimant was found to have involuntarily withdrawn from the labor market, the Board may draw an inference that the claimant's subsequent reduced earnings resulted from that claimant's work related disability rather than the claimant's unwillingness to work. In this case, although the claimant had involuntarily retired from employment, her testimony established that she had not looked for work for a least two-and-a-half years. At issue was the application of Zamora following the amendment of WCL §15(3)(w) to eliminate the need for a permanently partially disabled claimant to demonstrate labor market attachment so long as the claimant was found entitled to benefits at the time of classification. When the case was argued before the Appellate Division, the Board took the position that in light of the amendment of §15(3)(w), the claimant did not need to demonstrate labor market attachment.

The Court's decision hinged on a procedural oddity: the Board's change in its position on the case after the Court of Appeals granted leave to appeal. Prior to the Court's granting of leave, the Board implicitly inferred that the claimant remained attached to the labor market by relying on the amendment of WCL §15(3)(w). Following the Court's decision granting leave to appeal, the Board changed course and requested remand because it did not follow or explain its departure from its own administrative precedent requiring a claimant to demonstrate labor market attachment. 

Under these circumstances, the Court felt that remand was the best course of action, since any decision on the merits would be limited to the unique facts and procedural posture of the case. Remand would allow the Board to apply the alleged administrative precedent and clarify whether it is exercising its discretion under Zamora to draw an inference that the claimant's reduced earnings resulted from disability rather than unwillingness to work. 

Congratulations to our own Matt Hoffman, who successfully briefed and argued the case. Please do not hesitate to contact Matt with any questions about the decision.

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