Typically when a wheelchair-bound person rises to walk—or prune overgrown trees—the first word to spring to mind is “miracle.”
For Baltimore County officials snooping on a former employee claiming to be fully disabled, just that scenario (see video) has conjured a different word: faker.
Now that former Baltimore County employee—James Robinson of Joppa—has had his county disability retirement benefits cut off after nearly six years. He may be forced to repay a portion of the $300,000 he has received and his case could be referred for criminal prosecution if a hearing board finds that he was not as disabled as he claimed, county officials said.
Robinson worked for the county as a laborer for 15 years. He claimed he was injured in 2004 when a steel bar used to control a tarp on a dump truck struck and injured his wrist.
The injury resulted in the loss of the use of his arm that was so bad he considered having it removed. Ultimately, Robinson claimed the injury caused him to spiral downward—becoming depressed, relying on heavy-duty pain medication and losing the ability to walk.
"It made me feel less than a man because I couldn't do what I was doing," Robinson said during a May 20 Board of Appeals hearing. "It depressed me."
During that hearing, medical records were introduced showing that Robinson told doctors that he could not put weight on his legs or walk.
The county ended payments to Robinson in March after a medical disability board determined that he was not permanently disabled. Robinson appealed the decision and a hearing board heard the case on Friday.
Don Mohler, a county spokesman, declined to speak about the case, saying it was still being litigated and citing personnel issues.
But one county official familiar with the case said suspicions were raised two years ago after Robinson met with a doctor hired by the county for an annual review of the permanent disability claim.
After the checkup, the county hired a private investigation firm that employed six private detectives, working in teams of two, to observe Robinson. The investigators used video cameras to record Robinson's activities in public settings.
Robinson sat silently at a Board of Appeals hearing on Friday as a county lawyer presented what she believed was the most damaging evidence—more than two hours of video showing Robinson participating in sometimes-vigorous physical activity.
One lengthy clip showed Robinson working in the yard of his father's Carney home.
The video showed Robinson moving around the yard in his motorized wheelchair. He then rises from the chair to prune a tree from a standing position. At different times, Robinson can be seen holding a pruning device with his right hand—the arm he claimed was severely injured.
At other times, the tool was held in his left hand as Robinson used his right hand to pull a cord and clip branches. He then drags the large branches away.
In another clip, Robinson can be seen sitting in the rear of a minivan using both hands to wrap wire. His motorized wheelchair sits at his feet, which dangle over the side of the rear bumper. The county spent $10,000 upgrading the van to make it accessible to his motorized wheelchair.
The injury resulted in the loss of the use of his whole right arm and caused pain that was so bad he considered having the arm amputated, he told the hearing board last week. Robinson testified that the injury had three other major consequences: he became depressed, reliant on pain medication and lost the ability to walk.
Robinson said during his testimony that he is only rarely able to do the kind of physical activity depicted in the videos.
But medical records read during the hearing depict a different story.
The injury to his arm caused nerve damage so severe he couldn't use it, Robinson told a doctor. He needed the help of his wife to get undressed at a doctor's appointment. Having it touched by water during a shower or even a breeze caused severe pain, he said.
"All I can think about is, 'Is this how it's always going to be? Is it going to get better? Is it going to get worse?'" Robinson testified.
"All I do is breathe ... exist," Robinson told one doctor, according to records read in open court.
But during his May 20 testimony, Robinson said he is sometimes able to use his arms and legs and do chores around the home.
"It makes me feel like a husband," Robinson said. "Like a dad."
But Robinson testified that soon after completing those chores the pain returns.
"The 'zaps' usually come first," Robinson said, describing the pain.
The three-member panel could issue a written opinion within the next 30 days.
The outcome of the case could possibly affect Robinson's disability payments from Social Security, according to a county official.
Robinson could also be forced to repay the county any benefits and retirement payments disbursed after the video recordings were made, a county official said.