High court to hear case on dockworker disability

January 14, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court moved yesterday to settle a dispute among lower courts over the right of injured dockworkers to keep their disability benefits even if they get a better-paying job.

The justices voted to consider the appeal of a Los Angeles stevedore company, which contends that benefits should be reduced or wiped out if a dockworker who is getting disability pay eventually earns more money. That is the position the Labor Department takes.

But lower federal courts have failed to agree on the issue. Some have ruled that disability benefits can be cut off or reduced only if there was a change in the disability -- the reason for benefits in the first place.

Others, including the federal appeals court that decides cases involving Baltimore dockworkers -- the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. -- have ruled that benefits can be ended or modified if the disabled worker gets a better job or a pay raise in the same job, or gains improved skills by training or experience so that the loss of wages resulting from the injury can be offset.

The new appeal by Metropolitan Stevedore Co. of Los Angeles involves John Rambo, a dockworker who has been receiving disability benefits since hurting his back and leg in an on-the-job incident more than 14 years ago.

Because he suffered partial disability, and a $120-a-week loss in his wage-earning capacity, Mr. Rambo was awarded benefits. His actual disability pay was calculated at $80.16 a week. At the time he was hurt, he was making $534.38 a week on the docks.

After being retrained as a crane operator, he began earning as much as $1,690 a week -- more than three times his preinjury wage. So Metropolitan asked the Labor Department to review his disability benefits. The department agreed, and cut them off entirely.

A federal appeals court, however, said Mr. Rambo's physical condition had not changed, that he was still disabled, and that his benefits could not be cut off or modified.

A Supreme Court ruling on the issue is expected by summer.

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