Commonwealth Court Rules that Pre-Protz IREs are Invalid When a Petition to Reinstate is Filed Within Three Years of the Most Recent Payment
The Commonwealth Court ruled today that injured workers in Pennsylvania whose benefits were limited because of an impairment rating examination (IRE) may seek additional benefits if they file a petition within three years of the date of the most recent payment of compensation (wage losses). Applying the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s landmark 2017 decision in Protz v. WCAB (Derry Area School Dist.), the Commonwealth Court – in Whitfield v. WCAB (Tenet Health System Hahnemann LLC) – invalidated an IRE that modified the Claimant’s benefits in 2008, holding:
Because Claimant filed her Petition within three years from the date of her last payment of compensation as permitted by Section 413(a) of the WC Act, she was entitled, as a matter of law, to seek modification of her disability status based upon the Protz decisions, which found the IRE provision unconstitutional. Allowing Claimant to seek modification under these circumstances does not prejudice employers or insurers by upsetting their expectation of finality because such determinations are not yet truly “final” until three years have passed since the date of last payment.
The en banc Opinion by Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer contains a thorough history of the decisions in Protz v. WCAB (Derry Area School District), in which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional the impairment rating evaluation (IRE) provision in Section 306(a.2) of the Workers’ Compensation Act, as well as other cases that have addressed IRE issues.
In the underlying litigation in Whitfield, the WCJ found that Claimant was not entitled to reinstatement of her benefits. The Commonwealth Court disagreed, concluding that Claimant had a statutory right to seek reinstatement because she filed her Petition within three years of her most recent compensation payment, and had not waived her constitutional challenge:
The impediment that rendered her partially disabled under the WC Act, i.e., the impairment rating, is no longer a valid means of changing a claimant’s status. There was no longer a legal basis for Claimant’s disability status to remain partial because the IRE upon which the change in status was predicated was found, as a matter of law, unconstitutional and invalid. This change in the law was a basis upon which Claimant could seek reinstatement.
The Court remanded the case for a determination whether Claimant continues to be totally disabled irrespective of her IRE status. The Opinion did not address whether Protz applied to cases in which the last payment was made outside the three-year period under Section 413(a) of the Act. Judge Covey was the lone dissent.