Articles

PA Workers’ Comp News Alert: Benefits Cannot Be Suspended for Incarcerated Worker

Workers' Comp Benefits Cannot Be Suspended for Pre-Trial Incarceration for Inability to Make Bail

by Zachary M. Rubinich

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has issued an Opinion and Order in Carl Sadler v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Philadelphia Coca-Cola), requiring a recalculation and reinstatement of workers’ compensation benefits for a worker who was in prison following his work injury.

In 2013, Claimant was incarcerated for 525 days until his release at trial in 2015, where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served. In 2015, the employer filed a Petition to Suspend compensation benefits alleging that Claimant’s benefits should be suspended because he spent 525 days in jail prior to his conviction and because he was credited with having served that time upon his conviction. The Workers Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted the Suspension Petition. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) upheld the WCJ’s Decision granting the Suspension Petition for 525 days.

However, the Commonwealth Court reversed and ruled that the employee should not have had his workers' compensation benefits suspended for the period of time he spent in pretrial incarceration. The Court noted the language of Section 306(a.1) of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act that an employer is not required to pay benefits “for any period during which the employee is incarcerated after a conviction.”

On Appeal, Claimant argued that under the plain language of the PA WC Act, incarceration that occurs before a conviction, due to the inability to make his $150,000 bail, is not a “period during which the employee is incarcerated after a conviction.” Claimant argued that such an interpretation would be inconsistent with the fundamental principles underlying the PA WC Act and its purpose. In response, the employer argued that because Claimant was sentenced to time served after he pleaded guilty, the period he spent in jail before trial counts as “incarceration after a conviction.”

The Commonwealth Court panel, led by Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, rejected that argument. The Court reasoned that claimant was not incarcerated, or removed from the workforce, after his conviction. The Court found that there is no argument that claimant at all times has a work-related injury that prevents him from earning wages. The Court focused on the fact that prior to his conviction, claimant was incarcerated because of his inability to make the $150,000 bail, not because of a conviction for criminal conduct. Judge Jubelirer determined that to suspend claimant’s benefits during a period that he is not incarcerated after a conviction, and during which his loss of earning power is caused by his work injury, essentially punishes him because he was unable to meet bail. The Court concluded that this is not consistent with the humanitarian purpose of the PA WC Act and is not consistent with the plain language of Section 306(a.1). The Court also pointed out that Section 306(a.1) makes no reference to a termination of benefits during periods of incarceration prior to conviction. The three-judge appellate panel voted 2-1 to reverse the Order of the WCAB. Judge Anne Covey penned a dissenting opinion, arguing that all claimants who are sentenced to incarceration following a conviction should be treated the same, regardless of when they actually served their time.

This is a precedential case in which the Commonwealth Court has confirmed that the plain language of Section 306(a.1) of the PA WC Act does not support a suspension of benefits for an incarceration that occurs before a conviction due to an inability to meet bail.

Zachary M. Rubinich is a partner in our Philadelphia office. He focuses his practice on the defense of insurance carriers, self-insured entities and third-party administrators against workers’ compensation claims in Pennsylvania. Based on his extensive experience, the Pennsylvania Bar Association Workers’ Compensation Law Section has certified him as Specialist in the practice of workers’ compensation law. Zach has handled all aspects of litigation before workers’ compensation judges, the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, the Commonwealth Court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  He routinely counsels employers, insurance carriers and third party administrators on claims management, workplace safety, return-to-work programs, employment practices and risk management. Zach has been appointed to the following American Bar Association Tort Trial and Insurance Practice (TIPS) leadership positions: Vice-Chair of the Litigation and Trial Practice Committee; Vice-Chair of the Appellate Advocacy Committee; member of the Ethics and Professionalism Standing Committee; and member of the CLE Board Committee. These appointments will become effective in September 2019. He is currently Chair of the American Bar Association’s Tort Trial and Insurance Practice (TIPS) Workers’ Compensation and Employers’ Liability Law Committee for 2018-2019. He served as Vice-Chair of this committee for 2015-2016, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018. In addition, Zach served as Vice-Chair of the 2017-2018 American Bar Association Standing Committee for Diversity and Inclusion. Zach has been rated AV Preeminent by Martindale-Hubbell for the seventh consecutive year in 2019. He has been selected as a 2019 Pennsylvania Super Lawyer by Super Lawyers. He was selected as a Pennsylvania Rising Star by Super Lawyers from 2010 to 2014.

Zach can be reached directly at: (215) 575-4340 • zrubinich@rawle.com