Failure to engage in recommended rehabilitation activities can lead to a suspension of a worker’s compensation benefits

Administrative law – Decisions of administrative tribunals – Workers Compensation Boards – Workers Compensation – Benefits – Statutory provisions – Suspension of benefits – Judicial review – Evidence – Standard of review – Reasonableness simpliciter

Williams v. New Brunswick (Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission), [2013] N.B.J. No. 133, 2013 NBCA 32, New Brunswick Court of Appeal, May 2, 2013, J.T. Robertson, B.R. Bell and B.V. Green JJ.A.

Mr. Williams is a scaffolder. He sustained a lower back injury while working in September 2006. He filed a claim for compensation benefits for his injury, and the claim was accepted. After receiving nine monthly benefits, he received a letter from the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (the “Commission”) in June 2007 advising that his case for compensation benefits would be closed the following month because the Commission determined his back strain was not the limiting factor for his return to work. The decision was appealed. At the Appeals Tribunal, held in October 2008, the appellant was successful; the Panel concluded that the Commission erred in closing the claim rather than diminishing or suspending the benefits as entitled by virtue of subsection 41(16) of the Workers Compensation Act, R.S.N.B. 1973, c. W-13. Thereafter Mr. Williams received benefits from January 2008 to March 2009.

Subsequently, in March 2009 Mr. Williams received a letter from the Commission advising that his benefits were to be suspended. The Commission found that Mr. Williams failed to meet his responsibilities to rehabilitate himself to return to work and that his pre-existing medical condition inhibited his ability to work. This decision was appealed to the Appeals Tribunal. The Appeals Tribunal dismissed the appeal reasoning that there was an abundance of information both medical and clinical, including an independent medical assessment, to support the Commission’s decision to suspend Mr. William’s compensation benefits. The opinions in the assessment included that there was no objective underlying etiology for Mr. William’s back pain and that there were multiple non-compensable factors contributing to the back pain including Mr. William’s pre-existing health condition, and his lack of participation in treatment. Mr. Williams appealed the Appeals Tribunal’s decision to the New Brunswick Court of Appeal.

The sole issue to be determined by the Appeal Court was whether or not Mr. William’s benefits should be reinstated. The reasonableness standard of review applied.

Mr. Williams argued that there was a miniscule amount of evidence to support non-compliance. He maintained that notwithstanding his previous health condition, he had always been able to perform his assigned work prior to his injury. In contrast, the respondent argued the Court must consider whether there was sufficient evidence before the Commission and the Appeals Tribunal to support the suspension of benefits. The respondent further argued that there was ample evidence before the Appeals Tribunal to support a finding of non-compliance of Mr. Williams, including the independent medical assessment.

The Court of Appeal did not find that the Appeals Tribunal committed an error. It was open to the Tribunal to rely upon the independent medical assessment. The Court found there was an evidentiary foundation sufficient to support the finding that Mr. Williams was not complying with his prescribed treatment. There was also an evidentiary foundation supporting the finding that his inability to return to work was caused by factors unrelated to his workplace injury. The Court reiterated that the question before it is not whether the Court agreed with the Appeals Tribunal’s decision but rather whether their conclusion satisfied the reasonableness test. The Court dismissed the appeal concluding that the Appeal Tribunal’s decision was reasonable.

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