Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tip of the Day: Be careful mixing job, benefits terminations

When it comes to terminating benefits along with jobs, employers must take care to remember the two may not mix -- at least in the eyes of the legal system.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court held last week that Claire Cole, a former secretary for the department of public works in Salem, Mass., should have received full disability benefits after she suffered a heart attack within an hour of hearing she would lose her job in March 2000.

Cole, who died of a separate illness in 2006, previously claimed that past years of job-related stress, in addition to hearing that her position would be eliminated due to budget concerns, caused the attack, leaving her unable to do her job and thereby deserving full disability benefits. The Contributory Retirement Appeal Board later found that the debilitating heart attack was job-related, a finding that was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

The two key questions the court answered in the Retirement Board of Salem vs. Contributory Retirement Appeal Board were whether Cole’s heart attack occurred “as a result of and while in the performance of her duties” and whether or not the city is liable for the damages despite conducting a routine management practice.

Countering Cole’s assertions, the Salem Contributory Retirement Board argued that Cole had pre-existing conditions of hypertension and chronic anxiety.

Whether or not these types of claims will become a trend in coming months as more and more workers are expected to be laid off is hard to say. But according to one Salem attorney, this was a highly specialized case.

“If you’re talking about situations where people are being notified that their jobs are being eliminated and they have a reaction to that, if that reaction is purely mental or psychological, they will not recover [benefits],” Alan Pierce told Salem News. “If the reaction is physical, they will recover. But how frequently will someone have a heart attack or stroke upon receiving bad news?”

Is this a legitimate ruling or should her qualification for disability benefits have ended with her job’s imminent termination? Let us know what you think. --Kathleen Koster

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