LKQ Corp. v. Morales, Record No. 1173-22-4 (Va. Ct. App. Aug. 1, 2023)
In this case from the Workers’ Compensation Commission, the Court of Appeals decides whether a claimant failed to cooperate with vocational rehabilitation without justification.
Facts. In July 2015, Joseph Galarreta Morales injured his neck, left shoulder, and lower back while delivering automobile parts for LKQ Corporation. Morales filed for benefits with the Workers’ Compensation Commission. He was awarded medical benefits and temporary total disability for three periods, the most recent of which began on March 1, 2016, and continued indefinitely. The last statement in his record concerning his work status was an August 28, 2020 note from his treating physician that took him completely off work-duty status.
In July 2021, a vocational case manager for LKQ called and wrote to Morales to set an appointment to “discuss the job search process,” including interviews and job applications. The case manager’s letter requested that Morales bring records from his employment history “no more than 10-15 years.” On August 4, 2021, Morales sent a reply letter stating that he would meet with the case manager after agreeing to several preconditions, including the reimbursement of certain medical expenses. On August 3, 2021, LKQ filed an application to terminate Morales’ temporary total disability benefits because he “refused vocational rehabilitation.”
A deputy commissioner found that Morales’ preconditions to the meeting constituted an unjustified refusal to engage in vocational rehabilitation services and suspended his award of benefits. The full Commission reversed that decision, however, finding that LKQ had “failed to meet its burden to prove vocational rehabilitation was appropriate.” LKQ appealed.
Issue. Whether the Commission erred in holding that Morales did not unjustifiably refuse vocational rehabilitation services.
Holding. No. At the time vocational rehabilitation efforts were offered, Morales did not have medical authorization to return to work.
Notes. A claimant must generally cooperate with reasonable and necessary vocational rehabilitation services offered by an employer. If a claimant unjustifiably refuses to accept those services, then the claimant is barred from receiving compensation. However, vocational services are generally inappropriate for a totally disabled employee, and an “employee has no obligation to work with vocational rehabilitation until he or she is medically released to return to selective employment.” Here, the Commission found that Morales was totally disabled, and the most recent physician’s note took him completely out of work. Thus, he had not obligation to participate in vocational rehabilitation services.
Of note, LKQ relied on the non-binding Commission decision Gardner, 74 O.W.C. 97 to argue that a “minimally intrusive evaluation” was appropriate to assess Morales’ potential to return to work even though he was disabled. While not deciding whether this was required—the Court said that LKQ would only have had “a more persuasive argument” if it were—the Court did find that the services proposed by the case manager were not the assessment contemplated by the Commission in Gardner. The assessment described in Gardner explicitly excluded requirements that a claimant engage in “job search” efforts, but those were exactly what LKQ required for its “vocational appointment.”