Disability Retirement

By Paul E. Pfeifer - Court of Appeals

In 1989, Raeanne Woodman suffered a hemorrhage in the pons – an area of the brainstem. She subsequently underwent surgery, and parts of her pons and cerebellum were removed. As a result of the surgery and the original hemorrhage, she is confined to a wheelchair, has lost vision in her right eye and some of her hearing, and the muscles on the right side of her face are weak.

In 1999, the Ohio State University English Department hired her as an office assistant. Unfortunately, her position was eliminated in November 2011.

In October 2011, Raeanne submitted a disability-retirement application to the board of trustees for the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System (“OPERS”). In the application, she indicated her condition had progressively worsened over the years, and she identified three specific limitations.

Her “biggest problem” was her eyesight. Also, her handwriting had become illegible, even to herself. And she reported she was having trouble hearing students and co-workers. “I find that if I’m in an office setting with various noises and sounds occurring, I am unable to hear and understand the individual student.”

She submitted a report from her treating physician – Dr. Donald Mack. He noted the original hemorrhage, that she was wheelchair bound, had carpal tunnel syndrome, and decreased hearing. Dr. Mack reported she had a poor chance of recovery and described her deficits as permanent.

But the board of trustees required Woodman to submit to an independent medical examination with Dr. Robert Shadel, who prepared a report in which he concluded that Woodman was not disabled.

As to her hearing loss, Dr. Shadel said that Woodman “demonstrated adequate hearing in the examination room,” and “in my medical opinion, her hearing deficit primarily in right ear does not disable her from the job of office assistant.”

Dr. Shadel’s report was sent to a third-party administrator, who recommended rejection of Woodman’s claim. In February 2012, the board did just that.

Woodman appealed, and submitted an examination report from Dr. Gerald Steiman. Dr. Steiman noted that in tests, Woodman showed reduced hearing with poor speech recognition. He opined that Woodman was unable to perform the functions of an office assistant.

However – as the majority of our court noted – his report “did not indicate whether Woodman’s disabling condition was her hearing loss, her paralysis, her memory problems, or some combination of these and other conditions.”

After Dr. Steiman’s examination, another doctor for the third-party administrator reviewed the supplemental information and concluded that Woodman was not disabled from performing her occupation, and recommended that OPERS deny Woodman’s claim. The board rejected her appeal, and again found that she was not permanently disabled.

Woodman next filed suit with the court of appeals. The court noted that Woodman had complained of worsening hearing that made it impossible to hear what students and coworkers were saying, and that Dr. Steiman had confirmed that Woodman had trouble hearing if there was other noise in the room.

The court criticized Dr. Shadel for evaluating Woodman’s hearing in an examination room rather than a room where background noise was present. The court said that OPERS doctors had not tested her in “anything approximating a normal work environment with background noise. The doctors who evaluated her with a view to such a work environment all concluded that she could not do her work anymore.”

Based upon “this hole in the medical evidence,” the court of appeals concluded that the OPERS decision to deny her claim was arbitrary and unreasonable. “There was simply no evidence to support a finding that her hearing allowed her to return to work…”

After that decision, Woodman’s case came before us – the Ohio Supreme Court. In its appeal, the board argued that it did not abuse its discretion because the record contains “some evidence” to support its conclusion. That phrase – “some evidence” – is the standard used in these cases.

The “some evidence” the board referred to was Dr. Shadel’s opinion that Woodman “demonstrated adequate hearing in the examination room to allow her to perform the necessary job functions of office assistant.” The board argued that when the court of appeals rejected Dr. Shadel’s testing as inadequate, it abused its discretion and overstepped its bounds by independently reviewing the weight and credibility of the medical evidence.

The majority opinion for our court pointed out that the board is solely responsible for assessing evidentiary weight and credibility, and the court of appeals should not independently reweigh the medical evidence.

The court of appeals held that Dr. Shadel’s medical opinion was unworthy of consideration because – in the court’s view – his testing protocol was inadequate and less valid than the testing performed by the doctors supporting Woodman’s application.

But, according to the majority, the board did not abuse its discretion by accepting the opinion of its reviewing physician over that of the claimant’s treating physician. Therefore – by a six-to-one vote – our court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals, which means that Woodman’s application is rejected.

I cast the lone dissenting vote. One paragraph from the majority opinion virtually answers the issue before us: “Dr. Steiman opined that Woodman was unable to perform the functions of an office assistant. However, his report did not indicate whether Woodman’s disabling condition was her hearing loss, her vision loss, her paralysis, her memory problems, or some combination of these and other conditions.”

There might be other conditions? Isn’t this sad laundry list of known impairments enough to warrant a declaration that Raeanne Woodman is disabled? Apparently not, because there was “some evidence” that Woodman might not be disabled.

That that evidence is flawed because it is based on a test of her hearing that was performed under ideal conditions, not the circumstances attendant to fulfilling her job, is immaterial to the board and the majority. Raeanne Woodman is not a malingering malcontent. She’s a profoundly disabled person who has established that she is no longer capable of performing her job. I would have affirmed the just decision of the court of appeals.

By Paul E. Pfeifer

Court of Appeals

Paul E. Pfeifer is a judge in the Court of Appeals.

Paul E. Pfeifer is a judge in the Court of Appeals.