Tenth Appellate District: Workers’ Compensation

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

UPDATE: Sixth Circuit Finds a Constitutional Right to a Basic Minimum Education

On May 6, 2020, we reported to you that a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a decision holding that there is a fundamental right to a “basic minimum education” that is potentially violated when the state fails to provide adequate public schools. As a follow up to that post, on May 19, 2020 the Sixth Circuit vacated that ruling so that it can be considered by the entire Sixth Circuit bench. The ruling allowed students from five of the lowest-performing schools in Detroit to sue Michigan officials over their inability to read. There was some speculation about whether a rehearing before the entire Sixth Circuit bench (en banc) would be sought by the Attorney general, who had publicly praised the decision. However, the Sixth Circuit did so itself (sua sponte) under rules granting it the power to vacate panel decisions for consideration by the entire bench. This is done so where there is a potential for “a precedent-setting error of exceptional public importance” or direct conflict with Sixth Circuit or Supreme Court precedent. As reported in the blog post, the U.S. Supreme Court has not expressly held that the U.S. Constitution provides a fundamental right to a basic minimum education. As the dissent noted, the Court held in Plyler v. Doe, that “p]ublic education is not a ‘right’ granted to individuals by the Constitution.” The effect of the ruling is that the opinion of the three-judge panel is vacated and of no force and effect. We will keep you posted on any developments in this important case.

Sixth Circuit Finds a Constitutional Right to a Basic Minimum Education

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a 2-1 decision holding that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause protects a fundamental right to a “basic minimum education” that is potentially violated when the state fails to provide adequate public schools. The Sixth Circuit has jurisdiction over Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Judge Clay, who wrote the majority opinion, summarized the crux of the Plaintiff’s case. The Plaintiffs are students at several of Detroit’s worst-performing public schools. They credit this substandard performance to poor conditions within their classrooms, including missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials. Taken together, the Plaintiffs say these conditions deprive them of basic minimum education, meaning one that provides a chance at foundational literacy.

In 2016, the Plaintiffs sued several Michigan state officials, who they say are responsible for these abysmal conditions in their schools. Plaintiffs allege that state actors are responsible, as opposed to local entities, based on the state’s general supervision of all public education, and also on the state’s specific interventions in Detroit’s public schools.

The Plaintiffs’ claims are all based on the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiffs argue that while other Michigan students receive an adequate education, the students in Plaintiffs’ schools do not, amounting to a violation of their right to equal protection of the laws. They also argue that the schools they are forced to attend are schools in name only, and so the state cannot justify the restriction on their liberty imposed by compulsory attendance. And in their most significant claim, Plaintiffs ask this Court to recognize a fundamental right to basic minimum education, an issue the Supreme Court has repeatedly discussed but never decided.

The District Court found that the Defendants (various state officials including the Governor, Members of the State Board of Education, the State Interim Superintendent of Public Instruction, Director of the MI Dept of Technology, and the State School Reform/Redesign Officer, in their official capacities) were in fact the proper parties to sue, but it dismissed Plaintiffs’ complaint on the merits.

First, it found that the Plaintiffs had not alleged a proper comparator for their equal protection claim, nor had they highlighted any state policy or action that was not supported by a rational basis. Second, it found that the Plaintiffs had not sufficiently pleaded their compulsory attendance theory, and so the court only viewed their due process claim as seeking an affirmative fundamental right. Third, the court held that basic minimum education is not a fundamental right, and so Plaintiffs’ due process claim was dismissed. The plaintiffs then appealed.

The Sixth Circuit panel agreed that the Plaintiff’s equal protection and compulsory education claims were not properly pleaded and were therefore rightfully dismissed by the District Court. However, the panel agreed that the Plaintiffs had “been denied basic minimum education, and thus have been deprived of access to literacy.”

Judge Clay, seeming to understand the gravity of declaring a new fundamental constitutional right, wrote the following:

The recognition of a fundamental right is no small matter. This is particularly true when the right in question is something that the state must affirmatively provide. But just as this Court should not supplant the state’s policy judgments with its own, neither can we shrink from our obligation to recognize a right when it is foundational to our system of self-governance.

Access to literacy is such a right. Its ubiquitous presence and evolution through our history have led the American people universally to expect it. And education—at least in the minimum form discussed here—is essential to nearly every interaction between a citizen and her government. Education has long been viewed as a great equalizer, giving all children a chance to meet or outperform society’s expectations, even when faced with substantial disparities in wealth and with past and ongoing racial inequality.

Where, as Plaintiffs allege here, a group of children is relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy, we hold that the Constitution provides them with a remedy. Accordingly, while the current versions of Plaintiffs’ equal protection and compulsory attendance claims were appropriately dismissed, the district court erred in denying their central claim: that Plaintiffs have a fundamental right to basic minimum education, meaning one that can provide them with a foundational level of literacy.

The dissent argued that a holding such as this is beyond the court’s role and is something best left to the Legislature and the citizens at-large. Judge Murphy wrote in dissent: “The Due Process Clause has historically been viewed, consistent with its plain text, as a negative limit on the states’ power to “deprive” a person of “liberty” or “property.” U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. It has not been viewed as a positive command for the states to protect liberty or provide property. A state’s decision “not to subsidize the exercise of a fundamental right” has never been thought to “infringe the right,” even in areas where the states have long provided that assistance.”

Judge Murphy also noted the practical difficulties with attempting to enforce a right and its impact on the separation of powers issues. “How should those courts remedy the schools that they conclude are not meeting the constitutionally required quality benchmarks? May they compel states to raise their taxes to generate the needed funds? Or order states to give parents vouchers so that they may choose different schools? How old may textbooks be before they become constitutionally outdated? What minimum amount of training must teachers receive? Which HVAC systems must public schools use?”

The U.S. Supreme Court has not expressly held that the U.S. Constitution provides a fundamental right to basic minimum education. As the dissent noted, the Court held in Plyler v. Doe, that [p]ublic education is not a ‘right’ granted to individuals by the Constitution.” Accordingly, there is good reason to speculate that this decision would not survive an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, it is not certain where the case goes from here. The State Attorney General could seek a re-hearing before the entire Sixth Circuit bench (en banc). This may not occur as the Michigan Attorney General has already praised the decision. It is also possible that the State Legislature may seek to intervene and ask for a re-hearing. That request may have to go to the same panel that made this decision. Finally, the Sixth Circuit could decide itself (sua sponte) to re-hear the matter en banc.

We will, of course, keep you apprised of this matter as it progresses. While this case focuses on State officials, the next suit to enforce this new right could include local and County officials as well. This would put courts in the role of making independent judgments about the adequacy of all aspects of the educational services provided by schools in Ohio. This would be a significant break from the normal legal environment in which courts are reluctant to second guess the discretionary decisions of elected officials in the state, focusing instead on whether there are procedural violations to remedy.

Gary B., et al. v. Whitmer, et al 2:16-cv-13292

Courts Continue to Uphold Political Subdivision Immunity in Favor of School Boards

In two recent cases, a court of appeals has upheld political subdivision immunity in favor of school boards who have been sued by students and/or their parents.

In the first case, decided on March 26, 2020, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth District found in favor of the school board when the board requested the case be dismissed on immunity grounds. The case involved claims that, during the school’s annual class rocket launch, one of the rockets veered off course and struck appellant on her right lower leg, causing burns and scarring. The complaint further alleged that the teacher who supervised the launch failed to take proper precautions in launching the rocket. Additionally, alleged the school board permitted an unsafe environment and failed to require proper instruction. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the accident was due to a physical defect on the grounds or buildings owned by the school district, therefore destroying the Board’s asserted immunity defense. The Court found that the rocket failure did not result from a physical defect on the grounds or buildings of the school district, and further, that the teacher exercised judgment and discretion in conducting the experiment. The Court opined that so long as the teacher did not act in a wanton or reckless manner, the teacher and the Board were immune from liability. An individual is deemed to act wantonly if that person acts without consideration of possible harmful consequences. A person who is reckless is aware that one’s conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, and proceeds anyway.

In a separate Tenth District case, also decided on March 26, 2020, the court upheld the immunity defense for a school board and its athletic staff after a sixteen-year-old student-athlete drowned while on a team basketball summer beach trip to Fripp Island. Here, the Court found that immunity “extends to most school activities and administrative functions of the educational process, even if not directly comprising part of the classroom teaching process.” The trip was organized by the head varsity basketball coach, whose job description indicates that the position is a year-round assignment, and the trip counted toward the number of days that the coach is permitted to provide organized basketball instruction to the team, per the Ohio High School Athletic Association (“OHSAA”) guidelines. The connection of the outing to functions of the educational process was considered by the court. The athletic director, the principal, and the superintendent were aware of and approved the Fripp Island trip. The school district provided a vehicle to transport players, the team members wore their school practice uniforms while they participated in practice, and participated in scrimmages against other teams during the five days of the trip. Similarly, the Court found that the coach and staff did not act in a reckless or wanton manner and thus were immune from liability in the exercise of discretion and judgment that are part of their job duties.

These cases emphasize that Ohio courts will recognize and enforce the immunity defense when properly applied and in the absence of wanton, reckless, or otherwise irresponsible actions on the part of district staff. The extension of this coverage to activities often seen as outside the scope of the educational process enlarges staff protections in its many areas of student supervision.  

Douglas v. Columbus City Schools Bd. of Edn., 2020-Ohio-1133
Michael v. Worthington City School Dist., 2020-Ohio-1134

COVID-19 Update: Changes in Unemployment Law

Districts should expect to see a rise in unemployment claims due to the current pandemic. Ohio received 187,000 claims during the week of March 15-21. Substitutes, in particular, are likely to make claims during this time. 

Governor DeWine has issued an order (EO 2020-03D) to ease the process of obtaining unemployment benefits. Employees who are ordered to stay home or isolated by an employer or public health authority, whether infected or not, will qualify for benefits so long as the employee is otherwise eligible. The basic requirements for eligibility for benefits are that a claimant has worked a sufficient number of hours and has earned a sufficient amount of pay during a period referred to as the “base period.” The base period is the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters at the time the claim is filed. (Claims filed in March would be calculated on the four quarters beginning October 1, 2018, through September 30, 2019.) Individuals must have at least 20 weeks of employment and an average weekly wage of $269 during the base period of the claim.

ODJFS issued a mass-layoff number (2000180) that employees can use to expedite the handling of their claim. Employees subject to RIF due to COVID-19 can use this form and reference number. http://www.odjfs.state.oh.us/forms/num/JFS00671/pdf/

Substitute employees may file claims for lack of work due to the ordered shutdown of the school to students. Outside of the context of a shutdown, districts may attempt to challenge lack of work claims by substitutes, due to the nature of the assignment not having guaranteed hours or days of work per year. Many substitutes pick and choose their own assignments. Those arguments will not be applicable, where, as here, there are no assignments for the substitute to choose from. Therefore, such employees are much more likely to receive benefits under these circumstances. 

Additional benefits of the order are that certain benefit recipients will not be subject to the work search requirement during the period of the emergency. All claimants, however, will continue to be required to be “able and available for work,” in order to receive benefits.

Finally, penalties against employers for failing to provide reports or make payments during the emergency declaration period.

The merits of each claim are fact dependent and may be subject to challenge even in light of the order. Please do not hesitate to contact an attorney at Ennis Britton to discuss your particular claim.