County Cannot Take Inconsistent Actions Based On Same Medical Evidence

Nikki Lewis is a correctional officer employed by Riverside County, California. Her job requires opening and closing heavy cell doors and handcuffing and unhandcuffing heavy inmates, as well as computer and keyboard work, detailed hand work, and some heavy lifting. She suffered injuries to her wrists and upper and lower extremities, as well as a generalized pain syndrome.

Lewis’ physician found her condition to be permanent and stationary and that her medical condition prevented her from working. Lewis applied for a disability retirement, which was denied by the County.

In response, Lewis withdrew the appeal of the County’s denial of her disability request and submitted a demand for reinstatement. The County denied her demand for retroactive salary and benefits and ordered her to be reinstated and report for duty. However, the County said that Lewis could not work while taking pain medications and would be listed as “absent without pay.”

Finally, Lewis submitted to a third medical examination, this one conducted by a rheumatologist. The rheumatologist described her as “temporarily totally disabled” and stated that there were not any “areas of apportioning for her final disability.” Lewis re-filed her disability retirement request, and the County opposed it. Lewis then appealed the County’s decision through the court system.

The California Court of Appeals criticized the County’s approach to Lewis. The Court found that “the County’s words and actions contradicted its claimed belief that Lewis was not disabled. Before it denied her disability application, the County reviewed medical reports and found Lewis’ medical condition prevented her from performing her regular work duties and that her Department would not employ her given her work restrictions. The County offered her rehabilitation services. The County’s Human Resource Department then denied Lewis’ disability application before receiving the medical evaluation describing her disability status as ‘permanent and stationary.’

“While the County’s position may have been to deny retirement benefits and maintain that Lewis was capable of performing her job duties, it essentially treated Lewis as though she was disabled. Such conflicting statements concerning the same injury based on the same medical evidence places the employee in a ‘Catch 22.’”

The Court ordered the County to grant Lewis a disability retirement.

Lewis v. County of Riverside, 2007 WL 93175 (Cal.App. 2007).

This article appears in the June 2007 issue