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Court Finds Train Worker Can't Do Job, Citing VA Disability Benefits Application

Monday, June 17, 2013
By Chris Opfer

An Alabama train worker with post-traumatic stress disorder who obtained partial disability benefits after being placed on involuntary leave could not show that he was able to perform the essential functions of his job at the time of the decision, a federal district court ruled June 12 (Chancey v. Fairfield S. Co., N.D. Ala., No. 2:11-cv-03609, 6/12/13).

Robert Chancey said he was cleared to return to work as a train operator helper for Fairfield Southern Co. after receiving treatment for PTSD and related tremors, but claimed that the company refused to allow him back on the job because of the condition.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama found, however, that Chancey failed to explain the implicit statement in his application for disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs that he was completely unable to work.

As a result, the court granted summary judgment to Fairfield Southern and parent company United States Steel Corp. on Chancey's claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act.

Although VA ultimately determined that Chancey was 50 percent disabled by his conditions, Judge Virginia E. Hopkins explained that there was no evidence showing that Chancey meant to claim only partial disability.

Nor did Chancey show that he was otherwise able to perform job functions that required concentration, physical strength and agility, and the ability to communicate and work safely with others, the court held. 

Tremor Led to Removal

Fairfield Southern hired Chancey as a train operator helper in December 2009.

The job entails frequent physical labor, including throwing 60-pound train switches, operating hand brakes, and walking briskly along railroad roadbeds for distances of up to two miles, among other tasks. The job description further indicates that the position requires the ability to remain alert at all times, perform duties with a sense of safety for the worker, co-workers, and members of the public, and work closely with fellow employees.

According to his complaint, Chancey was taken off the job July 5, 2010, after experiencing a tremor during a conversation with his supervisor. He was ultimately referred to Grayson & Associates, a mental health clinic, for a psychological evaluation.

Chancey applied for VA disability benefits July 23, 2010, listing tremors and PTSD as his disabling conditions.

After being treated for PTSD, Chancey claimed that he was released from the facility and cleared to return to work Oct. 28, 2010. Nevertheless, the companies declined to allow Chancey back on the job.

In a deposition, U.S. Steel medical director Dr. Cheryl Szabo testified that she did not clear Chancey to return to work because he continued to exhibit symptoms related to PTSD.

Specifically, Szabo said Chancey “was shaking, tremulous, stuttering” and that he appeared depressed and did not make eye contact when she met with him Nov. 1, 2010. Szabo also stated that Chancey was unable to perform basic coordination tests.

VA found Chancey 50 percent disabled because of PTSD in a March 14, 2011, decision. The agency noted that Chancey had a “flattened affect,” that he experienced panic attacks more than once a week, and that the condition impaired his ability to think, make judgments, and maintain effective work relationships.

Chancey later sued Fairfield Southern and U.S. Steel, alleging that the companies discriminated against him based on his disability by refusing to allow him to return to work and forcing him to submit to the psychological evaluation. 

Focus on Application, Not Award

Relying on his VA benefits application, the court found that Chancey could not show that he was able to perform the job's essential functions at the time he was placed on leave and when he later met with Szabo.

The court distinguished between VA's view of Chancey's ability to work and that expressed by Chancey in seeking benefits. Although VA deemed Chancey 50 percent disabled, the court observed, he indicated in his benefits claim that he was completely unable to work because of his impairments.

Chancey did not state anywhere in the application that he was seeking only partial disability benefits, according to the court, which also noted that he was still receiving VA disability benefits at the time of the decision.

“The court has studied Mr. Chancey's application and, while it may not expressly state that he is completely unable to work, the obvious implication of its contents is that he is seeking 100% in VA compensation benefits based upon his disabling conditions of PTSD and tremors,” Hopkins wrote.

The court further found that Chancey did not provide an adequate explanation for the clear contradiction between the statements in his benefits application--signed under penalty of perjury--and the implication in his ADAAA claim that he remained ready to perform his job.

“[T]he VA Rating Decision discusses how Mr. Chancey's 50% disability rating correlates with certain occupational deficiencies, and Mr. Chancey has made no effort to reasonably explain why this administrative finding bears no relationship to his ability to perform the essential functions of the train operator helper as delineated in the job description and as clarified by Dr. Szabo, including the essential function of being able to safely work around moving trains in light of his PTSD,” Hopkins concluded. 

Medical Evaluation Claim Waived

Meanwhile, the court ruled that Chancey waived his ADAAA medical evaluation claim by failing to address it in response to the companies' summary judgment motions.

Instead, according to the court, Chancey argued for the first time in his response brief that Fairfield Southern violated the law's confidentiality provisions by disclosing information about his prescribed medications to Dr. Szabo.

“Mr. Chancey is prohibited from pursuing his too-late-raised breach of medical confidentiality claim,” Hopkins explained.

Chancey was represented by Kenneth D. Haynes and Charles E. Guerrier of Haynes & Haynes in Birmingham. Michael L. Lucas of Burr & Forman in Birmingham represented Fairfield Southern and U.S. Steel. The latter company also was represented by corporate counsel Rodney M. Torbic.


Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Chancey_v_Fairfield_Southern_Company_Inc_et_al_Docket_No_211cv036.

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