Rube Goldberg ain’t got nuthin’ when compared with the machinations of the Ohio Supreme Court

In a recent decision, the Ohio Supreme Court further muddied the water when it comes to payment of temporary total disability and abandonment of employment.

For years, Ohio courts have held an injured worker (or “claimant”) is entitled to temporary total disability (TTD) as long as she is disabled when she voluntarily leaves her employment. This makes logical sense: TTD is to compensate the claimant for lost earnings while she is recovering and is physically/psychologically unable to return to the former job duties. Leaving your job doesn’t equate to magic healing.

In a recent Ohio Supreme Court case, the Court held that a claimant is now ineligible for TTD if he voluntarily removes himself from his former position of employment for reasons unrelated to his injury, even if he remains disabled at the time he separates from his employment.

State ex rel. Klein v. Precision Excavating & Grading Co., 2018-Ohio-3890, John Klein sustained a chest injury on November 5, 2014. His physician wrote him off work through an estimated January 5, 2015.  Prior to the injury, Klein had contemplated moving to Florida for warmer climate, early bird specials and better job opportunities.  Two weeks after his Ohio injury, he informed the BWC of his new Florida address. The Industrial Commission awarded temporary total, but only through November 20, 2014, the date Klein left Ohio for Florida.  Temporary total was denied after November 20, 2014 with the finding that Klein voluntarily quit for reasons unrelated to the allowed conditions, even though he was already disabled by his injuries before moving to Florida for better job opportunities.

The Tenth District Court of Appeals overturned the Industrial Commission’s decision, citing previous supreme court cases clearly establishing that, if allowed conditions have already disabled someone from the job duties of the former position of employment, subsequent events are irrelevant.

The employer appealed to the Supreme Court.  Alleging “due respect for the principles of stare decisis,” the Court reversed and overruled long-established case law. They held that previous cases were wrongly decided, defied practical workability, and that no undue hardship would result from them being overruled.  The Court claimed to base its reasoning on the need for a causal connection between the lost wages and the allowed conditions. Even if that connection exists, the court reasoned, subsequent voluntary abandonment of the former job for reasons unrelated to the injury breaks the connection and temporary total is not payable thereafter.

Where is the logic in this? The injury is still disabling and work-prohibitive!

The Court spared other voluntary abandonment situations where the injury and the termination are connected, finding those situations distinguishable from instances where claimants quit the former position for reasons unrelated to the allowed conditions.

The Court claims that it clarified the law in this decision. Really, they’ve turned voluntary abandonment into even more of a Rube Goldberg machine. When an injury creates disability before a voluntary quit/termination, there is a causal relationship between the injury and lost wages.  That was precisely the point of three previous supreme court cases addressing this exact issue: you cannot abandon something from which are already disabled as a result of the injury. However, the Court purportedly relied on causal relationship to overrule cases that properly apply that very principle—in reality, it did nothing of the sort. Rather, it utilized tortured reasoning to come to a conclusion that it deemed justified, prior law be damned. How woke!!

Klein was unable to work because of a chest injury.  His move to Florida did not cure his chest injury. He was still unable to perform the job duties of his former position in Ohio while still with the employer of record as he was in Florida.  In a previous case cited by the court, the test for temporary total is not about an actual job (the former position itself), but rather the job duties of the former position. Klein leaving his former position itself and moving to Florida didn’t cure him of the injury that still prevented him from performing the job duties of the former position.  The Court failed to apply this test despite citing previous cases. It is hard to respect stare decisis if you don’t know what your prior decisions actually say!

Although this decision may seem reasonable to employers, it undermines the purpose of workers’ compensation which is to provide salary replacement for someone unable to earn wages following a work-related injury. It also is disturbing from a policy perspective for several reasons. First, as noted, what had been clear law concerning compensation for work injuries now is impacted by the timing of retirement or other decisions. Also, if a claimant knows his business is about to close its doors, secures other employment to provide for himself and his family and is injured between starting the new job and the current business going under, he may be upan the proverbial creek without a paddle. This results in no income in a situation where compensation previously would have been paid. It could also mean an injured worker would have to go on welfare, even though clearly covered under his employer’s workers’ compensation policy, thus shifting the cost burden to society as a whole rather than to the workers’ compensation system.

This is just a bad, poorly-reasoned decision by the Supremes. C’mon, man!!

James Monast
Fighting for Ohio’s Injured Workers and their Families
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