Is Light Duty Work Sheltered Employment?

The question of whether light duty work is considered sheltered employment was raised by Moore v. Servicemaster Commercial Services. In this case, a commercial housekeeper had injured her shoulder at work. She needed surgery, but was authorized to return to work with restrictions afterwards. Her doctor advised three weeks of physical therapy, and her employer was prepared to give her a light-duty work position. However, she claimed to be experiencing a significant amount of pain and would not return to her job until physical therapy had been completed. One month after making this decision, her employer fired her because she did not return to work or call in sick on the days of scheduled employment.

Two months after losing her job, the housekeeper was finished with her physician recommended physical therapy and the doctor determined that she was at maximum medical improvement. Her permanent impairment rating was set, and she began a new job within six weeks of completing physical therapy.

The next step that the housekeeper took was to file a request for benefits for temporary partial disability, which she requested to begin on the date of her release to light duty work and to end on the date of beginning her new job. However, she was denied workers’ compensation benefits by the employer who had terminated her employment. The reason was expressed as being her voluntary option to limit wages when she was released to light duty work and did not accept the light duty position that was offered to her.

On being refused benefits, the housekeeper sought a hearing before a judge of compensation claims (JCC). She expressed that she was justified in choosing not to return to work and that the light duty work that was offered to her was ‘sheltered employment.’ Because the light duty job was considered by the court to be suitable and legitimate work, it could not be defined as ‘sheltered employment’ (Florida Statute Section 440.15(6)), and the housekeeper was denied her request for disability benefits.

The housekeeper then appealed to Florida’s First District, which dismissed her claim, stating that the former employer had offered a legitimate light duty work opportunity. To convince the courts that the work offered was ‘sheltered employment,’ the housekeeper would have to demonstrate that there was bad-faith gamesmanship on the part of the employer, and that the work was only intended to reduce or eliminate costs associated with workers’ compensation. In this case, the housekeeper could not prove this, and the court determined that the employer should not be penalized. While the housekeeper may have felt that the offered job was too easy and constituted ‘sheltered employment,’ her appeal was unsuccessful because the Court of Appeal agreed with the ruling of the JCC, that the return-to-work program offered by the employer was legitimate and that she should not receive workers’ compensation benefits.

Although the appellate court agreed with the order made by the JCC on the refusal of suitable employment by the housekeeper, the First District Court of Appeal ultimately reversed and remanded the decision of the JCC about the time period that followed her completion of physical therapy and preceded her acceptance of a new job.

Anyone who experiences a workplace accident in South Florida, should contact a personal injury attorney to discuss the case and seek advice on how to proceed. With the advice of an attorney in this matter, you will be better able to make choices that will benefit your case and less likely to make decisions that may harm your case.

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