The Supreme Court of Ohio recently issued an opinion in a workers’ compensation case in which an employer was sued for disability payments even after the employee had quit and moved on to another job.
The employee, Norman James Jr., worked for Walmart at the time he was injured. The injury fractured a surgical screw in his neck from a prior surgery, and he was allowed some compensation for certain conditions related to that injury. He returned to work after being fully released by his doctor, and then he quit his job one-and-a-half years later. He briefly worked at Petco and then began working for Casper Service Automotive. After a few months he was fired from Casper for excessive absenteeism.
More than a year later, James filed a motion for temporary total disability (TTD) payments against Walmart – retroactive to the day after he was fired from Casper. Walmart contested the claim on the grounds that the medical evidence did not support an award and that James had voluntarily abandoned his job when he was fired for cause from Casper.
If an injured worker does not return to his or her former position of employment as a result of the worker’s own actions rather than the industrial injury, the worker is considered to have voluntarily abandoned his or her employment and is no longer eligible for TTD compensation. However, an injured worker who voluntarily abandons employment but reenters the workforce will be eligible to receive TTD compensation from the original employer if, due to the original industrial injury, the claimant becomes temporarily and totally disabled while working at the new job. Thus, James had the burden of proving that his termination from Casper for excessive absences was due to his industrial injury at Walmart.
The Industrial Commission ruled against James, finding that the medical evidence did not support his claim. The next month, James again filed a request for TTD. This time, the hearing officer ruled that the matter had already been adjudicated, that James had voluntarily abandoned his job at Casper, and that he was not employed by either Casper or Walmart when his alleged disability recurred.
James then filed a mandamus action in the court of appeals, challenging the Industrial Commission’s ruling. The magistrate affirmed the Industrial Commission’s ruling, and the employee filed objections. The court of appeals agreed that James had voluntarily abandoned his employment at Walmart, but it sent the case back to the Industrial Commission to hear further evidence as to whether the employee was fired from Casper or laid off.
After an unsuccessful attempt at mediation, the case then came to the Ohio Supreme Court by way of appeals. The Supreme Court found that James had voluntarily quit his job at Walmart because his departure was not due to his industrial injury but rather so that he could pursue other employment. The court distinguished the case relied on by the employee, in which employees were laid off after their injuries, finding that James had presented no evidence that his industrial injury caused the excessive absences for which he was fired: “[A] key tenet in temporary-total-disability cases is that ‘the industrial injury must remove the claimant from his or her job. This requirement obviously cannot be satisfied if the claimant had no job at the time of the alleged disability.’”
Districts should be aware that they may have liability for TTD claims even after an injured worker has moved on to other employment. An employer would certainly be liable if the industrial injury is the cause of the departure – whether from the current or a subsequent employer – even if an employee is terminated for excessive absences. If the absences are caused by the industrial injury, the employee may be entitled to TTD. However, if the separation is not caused by the industrial injury, the employee is not losing wages due to the injury, and so no TTD can be awarded. TTD would also be denied, as in this case, where a new period of disability begins without the employee having a job at the time.
– State ex rel. James v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-1426.