Where an injured employee had not yet received workers’ compensation benefits at the time alternative employment was offered to her, her employer had no duty to issue a notice of ability to return to work under Section 306(b) of the Workers’ Compensation Act, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Sch. Dist. of Phila. v. WCAB (Hilton), __ A.3d __ (No. 34 EAP 2014, filed May 26, 2015). Shirley Hilton (Claimant), a second grade teacher at the School District of Philadelphia’s Pastorius Elementary, left her job in May 2009 due to an overly stressful work environment. Employer issued a notice of compensation denial and offered Claimant alternative employment at the Jay Cooke School. Claimant did not report to work when school began in September 2009, claiming that she was still unable to return to teaching because of ongoing treatment for her stress-related maladies. In October 2009, Claimant filed a claim petition alleging total disability.
The WCJ found that Claimant was totally disabled as of March 3, 2009, and awarded her benefits as of that date. The WCJ suspended benefits as of September 30, 2009, when, by Claimant’s own admission, Employer made the position at the Jay Cooke School available. The WCAB affirmed the WCJ’s grant of benefits but reversed the suspension of benefits on the ground that Employer never provided Claimant with a notice of ability to return to work pursuant to Section 306(b) of the Act, 77 P.S. §512(3). On further review, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the award of benefits and reversed the WCAB’s ruling on suspension. Sch. Dist. of Phila. v. WCAB (Hilton), 84 A.3d 372 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014). The Court held that the WCJ properly suspended Claimant’s benefits because she established disability only until September 30, 2009, and Employer had no duty to issue a Section 306(b)(3) notice in this case. Claimant appealed.
A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court in an opinion authored by Justice Baer. The Court examined the language and legislative history of Section 306(b)(3), which requires an employer to disclose evidence of a change in the claimant’s physical condition. The Court noted that it would be illogical to require an employer to issue a Section 306(b)(3) notice before it has conceded the occurrence of a compensable injury or the claimant has proven entitlement to benefits. Moreover, an employer cannot disclose evidence of a change in a claimant’s physical condition before her physical condition is determined. Thus, the Court held that an employer’s obligation to provide a Section 306(b)(3) notice of ability to return to work does not arise until after a claimant has become entitled to benefits.
The Court also rejected Claimant’s argument that her benefits were improperly suspended because Employer offered no evidence that she was capable of returning to work. The Court pointed out that Claimant bore the burden of showing the duration of her disability, and she did not establish that it continued beyond September 30, 2009. Significant to the Court’s analysis was a concession by Claimant’s physician that she was capable of working in a school where the environment was less stressful, and Claimant’s testimony that the Jay Cooke School was a quiet school where excellent teaching was taking place.