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A nearly decade-old, ostensibly employer-friendly change to the state’s workers’ compensation laws means that a woman who began receiving benefits after developing carpal tunnel syndrome but was later offered a light-duty position by her employer should not be able to keep receiving benefits if she has since moved across the country. That was the argument made by an attorney for the woman’s former employer Tuesday in Pittsburgh before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The woman’s lawyer responded during Tuesday’s oral arguments in Motor Coils MFG/WABTEC v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board that despite the 1996 amendment to Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act, a 1987 state Supreme Court precedent that focused on a claimant’s ability to physically commute to a light-duty job still applies in such situations. For that reason, claimant’s attorney Thomas Wagner of Meyer & Wagner in St. Marys, Pa., said he argued that the Commonwealth Court’s decision in favor of his client, Amy Bish, should be affirmed. According to the June 2004 Commonwealth Court opinion in Motor Coils, Bish had worked for Motor Coils for roughly 20 years, and her job involved repetitively wrapping copper engine coils. By the summer of 1997, her carpal tunnel syndrome prevented her from continuing her normal duties. After corrective surgeries were performed, she returned to the company in a light-duty position for a couple years, until Motor Coils underwent a lay-off period, according to the opinion. Bish’s husband — also a Motor Coils employee — accepted a separation package, but Bish was simply laid off. Her total disability benefits were soon reinstated. Bish’s husband found work in Oklahoma, and the couple relocated to that state. Bish remained out of work. After she had been in Oklahoma for several months, Motor Coils contacted her and informed her that her previous light-duty post was once again available, according to the opinion. Bish rejected the offer to return to her old job at Motor Coils. Citing that rejection, Motor Coils sought permission to suspend her benefits. A workers’ comp judge found in favor of Bish, and then the WCAB did too. Mark Gordon of Pietragallo Bosick & Gordon in Pittsburgh, counsel for Motor Coils, argued first Tuesday, according to Wagner and Gregory Fischer, who assisted Gordon in the case and was present at Tuesday’s arguments. According to Wagner and Fischer, Gordon did not argue that the 1987 holding cited by the Commonwealth Court — Kachinski v. WCAB — should be overturned. Fischer said Gordon argued instead that under the plain language of �306 of the act — which was affected by the 1996 amendments — if a claimant lives out-of-state, then his or her earning power is determined using data from the “usual employment area where the injury occurred.” Bish’s case is even more straightforward, Fischer said Gordon argued, due to the fact that she was for a considerable amount of time employed in a light-duty position with Motor Coils itself. The conclusion reached by the Commonwealth Court does not comport with what the General Assembly clearly intended in passing the 1996 workers’ comp laws amendments, Gordon argued, according to Fischer. After Gordon spoke, Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy stated that the issue of work availability was at the center of the case, Wagner said. Fischer said Cappy also asked Gordon to reiterate that Motor Coils was not seeking to have Kachinski overturned. Wagner spoke next, he and Fischer said. Wagner said he argued that despite the 1996 amendments, the “geographic reach principle” set forth in Kachinski still applies in cases such as Motor Coils. If a partially disabled claimant is made a specific job offer by a former employer, Wagner said he told the justices, then that job must be within reasonable commuting distance of the claimant’s present residence in order to be considered an alternative to benefits. After Wagner spoke, Justices Max Baer and Ronald D. Castille pressed him on whether the usual employment area principles should be applied in cases involving specific job offers, Wagner and Fischer said. Both attorneys said that Justice Cynthia A. Baldwin, who took part in her first oral arguments session as a member of the high court, did not have any questions for either Gordon or Wagner.

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