On July 20, 2022, the South Dakota Supreme Court issued its opinion in the matter of Baker v. Rapid City Regional Hospital and Hartford Insurance, 2022 S.D. 40 affirming the denial of Permanent Total Disability (“PTD”) to the Claimant based in part upon deference to the South Dakota Department of Regulation, Division of Labor Management’s (the “Department”) factual determinations.
The Claimant, William Baker, was attacked by a patient and struck on the head in 2013 and 2014 while employed by the Rapid City Regional Hospital (“RCRH”). Baker was subsequently diagnosed with Post Concussive Syndrome (PCS), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and anxiety. Years after the initial attacks, Baker continued to suffer from paranoia and obsession that purportedly limited his ability to work in public or interact with co-workers. However, it was unclear whether Baker’s symptoms were caused by the attacks at work or the stress from Baker’s ongoing litigation.
Baker argued the injuries he sustained at work remained a contributing cause of his mental impairments and he was entitled to PTD benefits. The Department held that even if Baker’s mental impairments were disabling, they were not caused by physical trauma from the injuries, and, therefore, he was not entitled to PTD. Baker appealed the Department’s decision to the Sixth Circuit Court, County of Hughes, Judge Christina Klinger presiding. The circuit court remanded the causation issue but affirmed the denial of PTD benefits.
Baker appealed the denial of PTD benefits to the Supreme Court, arguing: (1) the circuit court erred in denying his claim for PTD as he made a prima facie showing of obvious unemployability; and (2) RCRH and Insurer failed to meet their burden of proving suitable employment was available to Baker, because their vocational expert failed to inform potential employers of all of Baker’s limitations.
The Court agreed Baker did make a prima facie showing of obvious unemployability. However, the Court declined to impose “the exacting requirement suggested by Baker that the employer must speak with each prospective employer and inform them of claimant’s limitations.” Instead, the Court concluded an employer need only “show more than a general availability of jobs to persons with some of claimant’s disabilities.”
Baker further argued he was unemployable as he could not work around other people due to his mental condition. However, RCRH and Insurer’s vocational expert provided examples of 24 different available jobs, most of which would allow Baker to work without significant interaction with other co-workers. The positions were approved by one of Baker’s treating physicians, and Baker testified the positions would allow him to work individually. However, Baker never applied to any job position. Deferring to the Department’s personal observations regarding Baker and whether he was permanently totally disabled, the Court affirmed the Department and the circuit court’s determinations that Baker failed to meet his burden to show his impairments prevented him from obtaining employment.
Although the opinion generally reaffirms long-established precedent regarding odd-lot disability benefits, the opinion is unique insofar as it is the first time the Supreme Court has encountered a claim for odd-lot benefits based upon a mental condition, rather than a “physical condition” as stated in SDCL 62-4-53 (stating “An employee is permanently totally disabled if the employee’s physical condition . . . causes the employee to be unable to secure [employment]”). The Court questioned whether the Legislature ever intended to allow PTD benefits for a mental condition in the first place under the statutory language of SDCL 62-4-53. However, the Court declined to answer the question, as the issue was not challenged on appeal.