Ohio Supreme Court Again Upholds Voluntary Abandonment Doctrine

State ex rel. Jacobs v. Indus. Comm.

This month, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a denial of temporary total disability (TTD) benefits for an employee based on job abandonment.  TTD benefits serve as wage replacement for employees who have suffered a workplace injury which causes the employee not to be able to return to work.  Generally, an employee cannot be terminated for absenteeism while receiving TTD benefits.

Here, the employee was released to work with restrictions which the employer accommodated with a light duty assignment that met the restrictions in place.  The employee accepted the light duty assignment, reported to work for one hour, and then left complaining of pain and indicating that she was going to visit her doctor.  The employee did not return to work and the employer confirmed that the employee did not visit her doctor.  The employer sent two letters to the employee over a 15 day period indicating that the employee was AWOL and in jeopardy of termination.  The employee was then terminated for job abandonment after failing to respond to the letters.

Subsequent to the termination, the employee sought TTD benefits which were denied based on her termination for job abandonment.  The employee argued that she was unable to return to work due the industrial injury (the basic standard for awarding TTD), that she had not abandoned her job because reporting her inability to continue her light duty work constituted a rejection of the employer’s light duty offer, and that because the employer terminated her while she was disabled, the employer could not argue that she voluntarily abandoned her job.  The Industrial Commission as well as the lower courts rejected these arguments.

The Ohio Supreme Court rejected the employee’s arguments as well, holding that by accepting the employer’s light duty offer, she was subject to the employer’s absenteeism policy.  Further, the employee failed to provide any medical certification that the light duty work was beyond her capabilities, let alone providing any explanation at all for her failure to return to work.  The Court concluded; “When a claimant is discharged because of actions that were initiated by the claimant and that were not related to the industrial injury, a voluntary separation from employment has occurred that breaks the causal relationship between the industrial injury and the loss of earnings.”

Accordingly, employers should be aware that employees serving in light duty assignments can be treated just like any other employee with regard to workplace rules and regulations.