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State v. Archangelo

Superior Court of Delaware

August 9, 2017

STATE OF DELAWARE, Employer-Appellant,
DARREN ARCHANGELO, Employee-Appellee.



         The issue presented in this Workers' Compensation appeal is whether, as a matter of law, a partially disabled worker who does not seek employment has voluntarily removed himself from the labor market and is therefore not eligible for total disability benefits if the worker's total disability re-occurs. The determination whether a worker has voluntarily removed himself from the labor market entails an evaluation of the totality of the circumstances. The court holds that although the absence of a job search by a partially disabled worker is an appropriate factor to consider in this evaluation, it is not, as the employer claims, dispositive as a matter of law.


         Darren Archangelo was a middle school physical education teacher and wrestling coach when, in 2012, he was injured at work while trying to break up a fight between two students. He was totally disabled for Worker's Compensation purposes until March 6, 2014 when he improved to the point where he was capable of doing light work. Because of his improvement his total disability benefits of $645.01 per week were reduced to $369.30. In 2015, Archangelo learned he would need another back surgery as a result of his injuries, and the Industrial Accident Board (IAB) subsequently found that his total disability had recurred. The Employer appeals from this determination.


         A. The standard of review.

         The court gives considerable deference to the Board when considering appeals from its decisions. "On appeal from the Board . . . [this court] does not sit as a trier of fact with authority to weigh the evidence, determine questions of credibility, and make its own factual findings." [1] Instead it reviews the Board's decision to determine whether substantial evidence exists to support the Board's findings of fact and conclusions of law. "Substantial evidence" is evidence which a reasonable mind may find adequate to support a conclusion.[2] However, when questions of law are involved the court exercises de novo review.[3]

         B. The Board's decision that Appellee did not voluntarily remove himself from the -workforce is supported by substantial evidence.

         Archangelo bore the burden of proving to the Board that (1) there was a recurrence of his permanent disability, and (2) he had not retired from the work force.[4] To establish a recurrence, a worker must show that after his permanent disability ceased there was a work-related change in his condition which caused that permanent disability to recur.[5] Both parties agree that Archangelo has proven a recurrence of his work-related permanent disability. The issue is whether he had voluntarily withdrawn from the work force during the period between when his permanent disability ceased and when it reoccurred.

         The best way to put this dispute into context is to briefly examine relevant portions of Delaware Workers' Compensation Law.

• Where, as here, a worker is totally disabled, the worker will receive two-thirds of his or her "wages" as that term is defined elsewhere in the statute. That section further provides that "[n]othing in this section shall require the payment of compensation after disability ceases."[6]
• This does not mean that a totally disabled worker loses all benefits if he or she improves but remains partially disabled. If a permanently disabled worker improves to that point, the worker continues to receive benefits, but those benefits are reduced to two-thirds of the "difference between the wages received by the injured employee before the injury and the earning power of the employee thereafter." The partial disability benefits are not reduced by the worker's actual income while disabled; instead they are reduced by the worker's "earning power."[7] Stated another way, when a totally disabled worker improves to the point that the worker is capable of doing some sort of light work, the worker's benefits are reduced to two-thirds of the difference between what the worker was previously earning and the amount the worker is capable of earning after his or her improvement. This reduction is made irrespective of whether the worker actually undertakes light duty work or does nothing-the worker's benefits will be reduced to the same amount either way. In short, a worker who does not undertake light duty employment gains no advantage insofar as his or her benefits are concerned and suffers the loss of the wages he or she would have earned by doing light duty work.
• On occasion, a partially disabled workers' condition may worsen. When this occurs the worker may petition for reinstatement of his total disability benefits. If the IAB finds that the worker has again become totally disabled as a result of his job-related injury, the Board may order that the worker again receive total disability benefits.

         A wrinkle arises when an injured worker retires in the traditional sense for reasons unrelated to his or her job injury. (The court uses the term "traditional retirement" in contradistinction to retirement forced by the job-related injury.) Workers' compensation benefits are viewed as wage replacement benefits.[8] In instances in which a disabled worker retires in the traditional sense, there are no longer any wages to replace because the worker ...

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