On Sept. 27, 2018,the Ohio Supreme Court took the unusual step of overturning two prior decisions in an attempt to clarify a confusing aspect of workers’ compensation law. A long-standing tenet of workers’ compensation law, temporary total disability compensation, is intended to compensate an injured worker when they are unable to work due to a work-related injury. To be entitled to temporary total disability compensation, an injured worker must be medically unable to work and the inability to work must be caused by the work injury.
One exception to this rule, and a defense routinely used by employers, is the voluntary abandonment of employment doctrine. In essence, when relying on this defense, the employer argues the injured worker’s own actions caused his or her loss of compensation rather than the work incident and therefore they would not be entitled to compensation. Previously, the Supreme Court limited the scope of this defense by holding that if an injured worker was disabled due to the work injury at the time of the separation of employment, the injured worker remained entitled to temporary total disability compensation.
In State ex rel. Klein v. Precision Excavating & Grading Co., the Ohio Supreme Court overturned precedent and held that when an injured worker voluntarily removes himself from the workplace for reasons unrelated to a work injury, the injured worker is precluded from receiving temporary total disability compensation- even if the injured worker remains disabled due to the work incident at the time of the separation from employment.
John Klein sustained a work-related injury on Nov. 5, 2014 while employed with Precision Excavating & Grading Co and did not return to work. His doctor disabled him from work through Jan. 5, 2015. Klein filed a request for temporary total disability compensation based upon his doctor’s report.
Prior to his work injury, on Oct. 31, 2014, Klein informed his employer that he was moving to Florida and wanted to understand the proper procedures for quitting his job. On Nov. 3, 2014, Klein told a co-worker he intended to quit his job in two weeks and move to Florida. On Nov. 13, 2014, Klein informed the BWC that he was moving to Florida on Nov. 20, 2014.
The Industrial Commission awarded Klein temporary total disability compensation for the period of Nov. 6, 2014 (the day after his work incident) through Nov. 19, 2014 (the day prior to his move to Florida). Further, the Industrial Commission determined that Klein voluntarily abandoned his employment on Nov. 20, 2014, when he moved to Florida and therefore was not eligible for temporary total disability compensation beyond that date.
Klein filed a complaint in mandamus appealing the Industrial Commission’s decision. The court of appeals relied upon prior case law and concluded that since Klein was medically unable to work to work on Nov. 20, 2014, he remained entitled to temporary total disability compensation. The Industrial Commission appealed and the Supreme Court reversed and held that Klein’s move to Florida was a voluntary abandonment of his employment unrelated to his work incident. Therefore, he was not entitled to temporary total disability compensation after the date of his move.
Notably, in reaching this decision, the Court overturned State ex rel. Reitter Stucco v. Indus. Comm. and State ex rel. OmniSource Corp. v. Indus. Comm. and held “that when an injured worker voluntarily removes himself from his former position of employment for reasons unrelated to a workplace injury, he is no longer eligible for temporary total disability compensation, even if the claimant remains disabled at the time of his separation from employment.” The Court reasoned that the prior decisions created two sets of rules for employees. Employees terminated for cause while disabled from work were entitled to compensation while employees who voluntarily choose to leave the workforce were not entitled to compensation. The Court found no distinction between discharge for cause and voluntary resignation for purposes of determining eligibility for temporary total disability compensation given that both sever the link between the work incident and the loss of earnings.
This decision is a welcome one for employers. Employers can once again limit the scope of workers’ compensation claim costs when an injured employee either abandons the workforce or is terminated for cause even if the injured worker remains disabled due to the work incident.
However, the Supreme Court refused to overturn the decisions in State ex rel. Gross v. Indus. Comm. and State ex rel. Cordell v. Pallet Cos. In Gross II, the Supreme Court held that an injured employee was entitled to compensation because he was discharged for his actions that led to his work injury. In Cordell, the Supreme Court held that an injured worker who was terminated for failing a post-accident drug screen was also entitled to compensation. Even though it appears that both of these cases deal with employees discharged for cause and similar reasoning could be applied to these situations, the Supreme Court refused to overrule these decisions. Hence, although the Supreme Court clarified some aspects of the voluntary abandonment defense, these two examples of employee conduct remain as exceptions to an employer’s defense to compensation.