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Pokratz v. Jones Dairy Farm

August 15, 1985


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin No. 84-C-217-John C. Shabaz, Judge.

Author: Easterbrook

Before COFFEY and EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judges, and GRANT, Senior District Judge.*fn*

EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judge

The pension plan of Jones Dairy Farm's unionized employees (the Plan) provides benefits to disabled employees. John Pokratz sought disability benefits after he became legally blind. The Plan turned him down. His appeal presents questions about the interaction of state and federal law as well as the propriety of the conclusion that he is not disabled.


Jones Diary Farm employed Pokratz from 1967 to 1983. He did clean-up work on the night shift. Pokratz has retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive disease of the eyes. The disease restricts the field of vision and ends in blindness. By January 1983 Pokratz could recognize only light and not shapes in his right eye. His vision in the left eye was 20/20, but his field of vision was 10 degrees, making it difficult for him to work and hazardous to perform tasks requiring peripheral vision or depth perception.

Pokratz has not worked regularly since June 1980, when he was hospitalized for depression. He formally sought disability benefits from the Plan in December 1981. There is a dispute about whether he tried to apply earlier. He also sought disability benefits under the Social Security disability system, 42 U.S.C. § 423, and his application was granted.

The Plan provides benefits for permanent total disability but not for temporary or partial disability. The pertinent provision states that "permanent" means six months or more and that "total disability" is "a disability . . . [that is] the result of a bodily or mental injury or disease that has so permanently and totally disabled an Employee as to prevent him from engaging in any occupation or employment for remuneration or profit."

Pokratz was sent to Opportunities, Inc., a rehabilitation service, for an evaluation of his ability to work. He spent a total of 15 days there, performing a variety of tasks under guidance and observation. The report of Opportunities, Inc. concluded that Pokratz is in general good health and has good work habits, which "along with previous work experience [gives] him a lot of potential for competitive employment . . . . It seems that some sort of routine farm job such as a milking parlor or in a packaging-shipping/receiving department would be appropriate." Opportunities, Inc. observed, however, that Pokratz was depressed and uncommunicative much of the time and ran into trouble because he would not discuss problems in his work or cooperate with others. The report recommended treatment for this condition and concluded that Pokratz's mental problem was more serious than the vision problem.

The Plan denied the request for benefits in December 1982, concluding on the basis of this report that Pokratz could work. The Plan's decision said in part: "The fact that you have been employed for a number of months by Poyer Orchards, have had job training opportunities, and have had other employment placement opportunities available to you indicates that your general health does not preclude you from gainful employment."

Pokratz submitted new medical evidence in January 1983 about the extent of his vision problem, and the Plan treated this as a renewed request for benefits. It sent Pokratz for a new vocational evaluation, this time by Crawford Rehabilitation Services. Crawford concluded that Pokratz could function as a kitchen helper, packager, orchard worker, or assembler-all jobs in well lighted areas where Pokratz's remaining vision would suffice. Crawford, like Opportunities, found Pokratz's mental problems the only serious obstacle; the report observed that Pokratz was uncooperative and concluded that he "has invested in presenting himself as a disabled individual and has placed most of his effort into obtaining disability benefits." The report concluded that should "Pokratz's behavioral liabilities be attributed to a psychiatric disability as opposed to a lack of motivation to pursue employment" he should be treated as disabled.

The next stop was the office of Francis Millen, a psychiatrist. Dr. Millen concluded that Pokratz could work if motivated to cooperate, and that although Pokratz had an "affective disorder in the form of depression" this had no organic source. Although Dr. Millen did not find Pokratz mentally ill, he surmised that Pokratz had a "probable lifelong history of adjustment difficulty and defective coping mechanisms, present since early childhood." After receiving the reports of Crawford and Dr. Millen, the Plan again denied Pokratz's claim, informing him that "there is work which you could perform for remuneration if you were so motivated." After some further proceedings, and a renewed denial of benefits, Pokratz filed this suit under Sections 409 and 502 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1109, 1132.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants. 597 F. Supp. 326 (W.D. Wisc. 1984). The court found the denial of benefits to be neither arbitrary nor capricious. This disposed of the claim under ERISA, the court thought; to the extent the complaint was based on state law, the court dismissed ...

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