Workers’ Compensation practitioners and school benefits employees alike know that temporary total disability, and particularly the concept of voluntary abandonment of employment, are difficult areas of Workers’ Compensation law in Ohio. The Tenth Appellate District could not have framed the difficulty more succinctly than it did in a recent decision wherein the Court stated the issue of the case as follows:
“Can you be accused of assaulting your boss, get fired, be convicted (by plea, no less) of the assault, be at least preliminarily barred by court order from even setting foot in that workplace, and then still gain subsequent temporary disability status under Workers’ Compensation in connection with your (former) job?
The Court’s answer: Maybe.
Temporary total disability (TTD) is a benefit provided by the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) to compensate for wage loss due to an injury. Voluntary abandonment is a defense an employer may assert against a claim for TTD. An employee who is terminated for violation of a written work rule may be considered to have abandoned his or her employment. If the employer is successful in raising the defense, the TTD will be denied because the disability due to the workplace injury is not the sole reason the employee is unable to return to the former position of employment. The concept was first used in a case wherein an employee had voluntarily retired. The court held that “If the employee has taken action that would preclude him from returning to his former position of employment, even if medically able to do so, the employee is not entitled to continue to receive temporary total disability compensation, because it was the employee’s own action rather than the industrial injury which prevented him from returning to his former position of employment.” The concept has been applied to employees who are incarcerated as well as those that voluntarily retire.
However, not all separations from employment will constitute voluntary abandonment. Involuntary retirement due to the workplace injury will not preclude payment of TTD nor, to the surprise of many employers, getting a new job. The Ohio Supreme Court has held that the abandonment of employment defense applies only to claimants who voluntarily leave the labor market, not to claimants who quit their former position of employment. Employee discipline situations can fall both ways, which brings us to the importance of this case.
Termination from employment can be considered voluntary abandonment if the employee willingly engaged in acts that lead to the termination. The Supreme Court allowed the defense in a case involving the violation of a policy that prohibited the accumulation of three consecutive unexcused absences. If those absences had been due to the industrial injury that was the basis of the claim, the defense would not have been accepted.
Turning back to the case at hand, here, the employee got into a heated exchange with the employer which lead to a physical altercation. The employee reportedly lunged at the employer, pushing him and causing him to fall back. The employee was terminated and arrested for assault. The employer had a policy against fighting and a policy against criminal convictions other than minor traffic offenses. The employer asserted those policies as the basis for his termination and in turn, attempted to use the termination as grounds to cut off TTD benefits due to voluntary abandonment. At the first hearing, the District Hearing Officer granted TTD for the employee finding that the employer had not set forth sufficient evidence as to when or why the employee was terminated. On appeal, the staff hearing officer agreed and again, found in favor of the employee.
The employee testified that he did not assault the employer. Rather, he acted in self-defense when the employer came towards him. When the employer approached, he put his arms up to stop him and the employer said, “you just assaulted me.” The employee testified that he plead guilty to avoid excessive legal fees and jail time. The staff hearing officer rejected the employer’s position that the employee had willingly engaged in fighting. It appears the employer did not bring any additional witnesses to testify and the hearing officer found the employee to be more credible than the employer. The staff hearing officer also rejected the termination was based on a criminal conviction because it came long after the termination.
The employer appealed the matter to court but by then, it was too late to improve its case. Once on appeal, the court must accept the findings of the hearing officer unless the decision is an abuse of discretion because the hearing officer did not have “some evidence” to reach its conclusion. It is a high bar to overcome. The court noted that the hearing officer is charged with assessing the weight of evidence and the credibility of witnesses and is entitled to deference by the court. The employer lost the appeal.
The moral of the story is to never underestimate the importance of the BWC hearing. These hearings are brief and informal and it can lull an unwary employer into essentially “winging it” when they think they have a strong case. Any and all documentary evidence should be prepared and submitted, and any and all witnesses should be brought to testify. The employer has only one, perhaps two, chances to influence what goes into the record of proceedings (the hearing officer’s decision) and that record sets the basis for a court’s review in the future. Make sure that “maybe” becomes a “yes.” If you have any BWC related questions, please reach out to one of our Workers’ Compensation team members.
State ex rel. Welsh Ents., Inc. v. Indus. Comm., 2020-Ohio-2801