Companies cannot deny an employee disability benefits based on their ability to perform a job that only exists “in theory,” a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a lower court’s decision that found Means Industries Inc. was justified in denying long-term employee Kyle Kennard disability benefits after a medical exam by a company-selected doctor found he was able to work a clerical position in an “absolute clean-air environment.”

The company argued that in order to receive disability benefits, its plan requires a claimant’s disability to prevent him “from engaging in any occupation or employment for remuneration or profit.” And, according to the doctor, Kennard was capable of engaging in work, albeit with strict restrictions, the company added.

Although the district court agreed with Means’ interpretation of its plan language, the appeals court Thursday said “a valid denial of benefits based on the doctor’s opinion would need to include evidence of the existence of absolute-clean-air jobs available to Kennard.”

The company nor the examining doctor offered any explanation as to how Kennard’s restriction to work only in an “absolute clean-air environment” would translate into being employable in the “real American workplace,” the court says.

And interpreting the company’s plan language to include being employable in a job “that exists only in theory” is an “interpretation in error,” the court adds.

The appeals court remanded the case back to the district court with instructions to award Kennard disability retirement benefits retroactive to the date on which they accrued under the plan, and to consider his request for attorney’s fees and costs.

Kennard operated machines for Means Industries until 1990, when he inhaled fumes from a chemical spill, severely injuring his lungs and causing him to be ultra-sensitive to noxious fumes. Means attempted to provide Kennard a clean-air environment to perform a clerical job from 1992 until 2006, but various fumes in the air continued to make it difficult for him to breathe, and he stopped working in 2006.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Employee Benefit Adviser content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access