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Injured back at work then fired: Can she get workers’ comp?

An employee injured her back at work. There’s no question the injury was work-related. But her employer wants to prohibit her from receiving temporary total disability benefits because five days after her injury, she was fired. How did a court rule?

Shelby Robinson was a licensed practice nurse (LPN) with Progressive Parma Care Center in Ohio.

During her tenure, she was disciplined several times. In early 2008 she was written up twice for violating work rules. After the second-write-up, Robinson acknowledged she had been warned that any future violations would result in her termination.

On April 10, 2008, Robinson injured her back at work. Her workers’ comp claim was for a lumbar sprain and herniated disc.

Five days later, a state surveyor reported to Parma Care that Robinson had failed to:

  • communicate a resident’s dietary change, and
  • check a resident’s feeding tube.

The following day, the director of nursing prepared paperwork to fire Robinson.

Her supervisor tried to call her on April 16 and 17 and left messages for Robinson to call, which she did on April 18. However, Robinson refused her supervisor’s request for a personal meeting. Parma Care sent Robinson a certified letter dated April 30 that she had been terminated for cause effective April 16.

A hearing officer denied Robinson’s request for temporary-total disability benefits after determining she had been fired for violating a written work rule.

Since her firing was for misconduct, the hearing officer said Robinson had voluntarily abandoned her employment making her ineligible for workers’ comp benefits.

Previous cases in Ohio had determined an employee who voluntarily abandons his employment for reasons not related to a workplace injury can’t receive temporary total disability benefits. Being fired is usually considered involuntary separation, but when the firing results from employee misconduct that he knows will result in termination, it may be considered a voluntary abandonment.

Robinson took her case to a state appeals court which upheld the hearing officer’s ruling. Next stop for the dispute: the Ohio Supreme Court.

Split decision

In Ohio, employment discharge is voluntary abandonment only when the firing arises from a violation of a written work rule.

Robinson argued she hadn’t violated a written work rule.

However, she’d been given a copy of the company handbook. And on an employee discipline form, Robinson acknowledged her violation of one more work rule would result in her firing.

The Supreme Court majority ruled Robinson’s duties as an LPN were sufficiently identified in the employee handbook so that failing to record a dietary change and failing to attend to a feeding tube could result in her firing.

Robinson also argued Parma Care’s timing of her firing showed it was a pretext to avoid paying for temporary total disability. She noted that her termination letter was dated April 30 which was after she was medically diagnosed.

However, the court found Parma Care had terminated Robinson on April 16 before any physician determined she was temporarily and totally disabled due to a back injury.

So Robinson’s arguments before the court failed and the majority upheld the previous rulings that she wasn’t eligible for workers’ comp benefits because she voluntarily abandoned her job – that is, she was fired for cause.

One judge on the court dissented, writing that the concept of fault “has no place in Ohio’s system of workers’ compensation.”

“‘Voluntary abandonment of employment’ is a relatively new and unprecedented judicial construct that is eroding Ohio’s constitutionally guaranteed no-fault system,” the dissenting judge wrote, “and the majority decision takes the court further down the wrong path.

“What are we saying here?” the judge wrote. “That only good employees will be compensated for an injury on the job? That is not the law in Ohio.”

What do you think about the court’s decision? Should an employee be denied workers’ comp benefits if he’s subsequently fired from his job for misconduct? Let us know in the comments.

(Robinson v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, Ohio Supreme Court, No. 2014-Ohio-546, 2/20/14)

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Comments

  1. This case clearly has a lot of nuances, but there is one piece of the story that I think would need to be explained before someone could say whether or not this is a failure of Ohio’s worker’s compensation system, and that is was Robinson a truly bad employee deserving of her termination? We’ve all worked jobs where there are rules on the books for the sake of procedure and bureaucratic covering of the proverbial ass, but these rules either make no sense when actually applied to the real-world situations or provide only the most minimal amount of added benefit for a lot of extra work. Now to be fair, not providing dietary change information or changing a feeding tube sounds to me like failure to perform work properly, but I am no nurse, so how egregious these mistakes are I wouldn’t know. My point is, if Ms. Robinson made these honest mistakes in the flurry of taking care of her charges then I am inclined to see this refusal as a company trying to avoid a costly health-care payout by touting the red tape. On the other hand, if these mistakes are true failures to perform her job from lack of attention or care, then yes the company should be capable of terminating her and her worker’s compensation. Of course, this doesn’t even touch on the very true point that the dissenting judge mentions, that having companies refuse true, rightful worker’s comp claims in any way is both disheartening and frightening. The fact that the company filed the termination 6 days after Ms. Robinson’s accident, of which they must have been aware as well as her intent to file with worker’s comp., is troubling. Whether she was a bad employee or not, their timing was terrible. If there was good cause to terminate her employment, then she should be fired, but the fact that it was 6 days after her injury, in my eyes, means she should still get her claim for medical reimbursement but perhaps not pay for disability past the 16th. The injury occurred while she was still an employee with good faith between her and the company.

  2. I tend to question the timing of the employee’s injury. She knew she was on rocky ground due to her previous behavior and disciplinary actions. She should be extra cautious in how she handles patients. I know that not checking a feeding tube and providing dietary change information are indeed serious issues. I have seen many employees who tetter on the edge of being firing miraculously develop a WC injury. I have also terminated employees who are on disability or WC due to their performance regardless of the fear of resembling retaliation. Its quite sad in the WC world and the judges who continually side with the employees who are looking for an ‘out’.

  3. vicki coy says:

    This was done to me I worked had got hurt that bullied then let go going see what can be done

Trackbacks

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  2. […] can happen to anyone – a crippling back injury at work caused by employer negligence. The fear of such a workplace injury became all too real for Shelby Robinson, a licensed practice nurse, or LPN, working at the Progressive Parma Care Center in Ohio. To all […]

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