New Ohio Supreme Court Case Expands Voluntary Abandonment Rule for TTD Benefits
Over the past few years, the amount of temporary total disability (TTD) benefits received by Ohio’s workers has been declining. In 2015, workers received a total of $221 million in TTD compensation, which fell to $219 million in 2016, and to $204 million in 2017. The Bureau of Workers’ Compensation may attribute this decline, like Ohio’s decline in workers’ compensation claims generally, to benevolent forces, but the reality is probably not so cheery.
In fact, a recent case decided by the Ohio Supreme Court serves as a useful reminder that many such changes are driven by judicial decisions that restrict injured workers’ rights in the state. In that case, the Court expanded the so-called voluntary abandonment rule in a way that will make it harder for some workers to continue receiving TTD benefits despite an ongoing disability.
We’ve discussed Ohio TTD benefits in the past, and in this post, we will build off that discussion by exploring how the voluntary abandonment rule can cut such benefits off and how the Supreme Court’s recent decision has now expanded that rule to the detriment of Ohio’s workers.
Article at a Glance
- TTD benefits pay a percentage of an employee’s pre-disability income when a workplace injury prevents him or her from working.
- When a disabled employee “voluntarily abandons” his or her employment, TTD benefits will end.
- Historically, the Supreme Court recognized an exception to the voluntary abandonment rule, but in a recent case, it eliminated that exception, making it harder for workers in some circumstances to receive the TTD benefits they need to make ends meet.
The Voluntary Abandonment Rule
In general, a worker can receive TTD benefits when, as the result of a workplace injury, he or she is unable to return to work for a limited period of time. Those benefits will continue until any of several defined events occurs, one of which is his or her voluntary abandonment of employment for reasons unrelated to his or her workplace injury.
In the context of TTD benefits, “voluntary” has an unusual meaning. You might think it means that an employee has to voluntarily quit his job, but the term is broader than that. For example, an employee who is fired for violating a workplace policy is considered to have “voluntarily abandoned” his or her job. The fact that the worker “voluntarily” violated the policy is enough.
As the Supreme Court of Ohio has explained, the reasoning behind the voluntary abandonment rule is that “when a claimant’s voluntary actions, rather than his or her [workplace] injury, cause a loss of wages, that claimant is no longer eligible for temporary-total-disability compensation.”
The Historical Exception for Workers Medically Unable to Return to Work
Importantly, in past cases, the Supreme Court has recognized an exception to the voluntary abandonment rule. In 2007 and 2008, expanding on its reasoning in a case from a decade earlier, the Court explained that “if a claimant is already disabled when the separation of employment occurs, he or she is not disqualified from receiving [TTD] compensation.”
In other words, according to the Court’s past cases, “a claimant can abandon a former position of employment only if the claimant was physically capable of doing that job at the time of the alleged abandonment.”
Ohio’s courts of appeals have taken the Supreme Court at its word, requiring an assessment of whether an employee was actually able to return to work before denying TTD benefits on the basis of voluntary abandonment.
What the New Ohio Supreme Court Case Changes
But all that changed after the Ohio Supreme Court’s September 2018 decision in State ex rel. Klein v. Precision Excavating & Grading. Now, that exception to the voluntary abandonment rule is no longer available. Here’s what happened:
The Facts of Klein: TTD Benefits Denied to Disabled Worker Who Moved to Florida
The plaintiff in this case, Klein, was an employee of Precision Excavating & Grading Co., an Ohio excavation company. Klein was hurt while at work on November 5, 2014 and received workers’ compensation for fractured ribs and other injuries.
As a result of Klein’s workplace injuries, his physician reported that he would be unable to return to work until January 5, 2015. Normally, this would mean Klein could be eligible for TTD benefits through that date. But when he applied for TTD benefits, they were only allowed for the period of November 6 to 19, 2014.
The reason? According to the Industrial Commission (IC), Klein had voluntarily abandoned his employment on November 20, 2014.
To be clear, Klein hadn’t returned to work after his November 5 accident. Naturally, that was because he had become temporarily disabled as a result of the accident, but the IC pointed to other facts showing that he had abandoned his job as of November 20 for reasons not related to his injury, including:
- Klein testified that before his injury, he was planning to move to Florida for better weather and job opportunities.
- On October 31, 2014, Klein informed his employer’s controller that he would be moving to Florida and inquired about the process for quitting.
- Klein told coworkers before and after his accident that he had put in his two-week notice and would soon be moving to Florida.
- On November 13, about a week after his injury, Klein told the BWC of his plans to move on November 20, and on November 26, he asked that they send correspondence to him at an address in Florida.
Court of Appeals Applies Old Rule; Supreme Court Imposes New One
In response to the IC’s ruling, Klein filed a lawsuit to compel the IC to give him TTD benefits through January 5, 2015. Initially, his suit was successful: Relying on the Ohio Supreme Court’s existing cases, the Tenth District Court of Appeals held that the IC had to “determine whether [Klein] remained medically unable to return to his former position of employment beginning November 20, 2014.”
If he was medically unable to return, the appellate court explained, then he could not have voluntarily abandoned his job, despite his earlier intent to do so and his move to Florida, and the IC would have to provide TTD benefits beyond November 19.
But the Ohio Supreme Court, which can overrule its own precedents, decided to do just that. The court explained that its past exception to the voluntary abandonment rule “contradict[ed] a fundamental tenet of [TTD] compensation: that the [workplace] injury must cause the worker’s loss of earnings.” Accordingly, from now on:
When an employee voluntarily undertakes some action that precludes a return to employment, the employee is not entitled to [TTD] compensation “because the purpose for which [TTD compensation] was created . . . no longer exists.”
Under this new, expanded rule, all that matters is the employee’s intent, as “inferred from words spoken, acts done, and other objective facts.” And in Klein, those “objective facts” all pointed one way. Klein had said he planned to quit and move to Florida before and after his injury, and then he did so. Therefore, he did not qualify for TTD benefits despite the fact that he remained disabled by his workplace injury.
What Klein Means for Ohio Workers
The Court’s holding in Klein is couched in the language of causation, but it’s a highly technical conception of causation that ignores practical realities. In practice, a person who is unable to return to work because of a workplace injury will likely remain out of work for the duration of that disability, whether the person remains in his or her current employment or not.
And, for as long as the disability continues, that person’s period of unemployment was undeniably caused by his or her injury on the job. Only on paper could that unemployment be considered the result of voluntary abandonment—but, according to Ohio Supreme Court, what’s “on paper” is now the only thing that matters.
Hopefully, the fallout from Klein will be limited, but it highlights the ongoing need for workers injured in workplace accidents to consult a knowledgeable workers’ compensation attorney early in the workers’ compensation process.
Plevin & Gallucci is an Ohio workers’ compensation law firm with offices in Cleveland, Columbus, and Waverly. Our lawyers are constantly monitoring Ohio legislation and court decisions that impact injured workers’ rights, and we offer comprehensive guidance to our clients as they navigate the workers’ compensation system. If you’ve been injured on the job in Ohio, contact us today for a free consultation.