An injured worker who was on light duty can’t continue to collect temporary total disability (TTD) benefits after being fired with cause, according to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
The employer was able to prove it had good cause to terminate the worker’s employment, and the court upheld lower court and Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board decisions denying further benefits.
Terminated based on job performance
In Montano v. Advance Stores Company, the worker injured his back and right shoulder May 30, 2017, when boxes of windshield washer fluid fell on him while he was working in a warehouse.
On June 13, 2017, he returned to work in a modified-duty position as a trainer with the company. Three months later, the company issued a medical-only Notice of Compensation Payable for the injury.
In August 2018, the worker was terminated based on his job performance as a trainer. He filed a reinstatement petition for TTD benefits on the same day he was fired, claiming he was terminated because of “work injury related medical restrictions” while on light duty.
While the petition was pending, the worker underwent surgery to treat a disc herniation. On June 14, 2019, he underwent a surgery on his right shoulder.
Behavior could lead to failed safety audits
In court before a workers’ compensation judge, the worker’s doctors agreed there would have been a period of total disability following each of the surgeries and that the worker would’ve been capable of performing light-duty work six months following the back surgery and four months following the shoulder surgery.
The judge found that neither the worker nor the employer had issue with the extent of the injuries or the recovery time, rather there was a dispute over the cause of the termination.
During his time as a trainer, the worker stated that he’d never been disciplined and when his supervisor pointed out problems with his paperwork he would immediately make corrections. He argued that the real reason he was fired was because of either his injuries or because he’d spoken with a union representative about signing up for a union organization.
The supervisor testified that she’d found several instances where the worker’s training paperwork reflected that he “was moving through the training without regard to actually training or reviewing the specific items indicated on the forms.” She claimed she informally counseled him on the paperwork multiple times and made it official on two occasions.
When the behavior didn’t stop, she took her concerns to management and because the worker’s behavior could lead to failed safety audits, he was fired.
Employer’s failure to follow policy didn’t affect decision
The judge found the worker had been fired for a justified cause and awarded TTD benefits only for the limited periods of time following each surgery. The worker appealed with the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board arguing the company hadn’t followed its progressive disciplinary policy. The board upheld the judge’s decision finding the employer “met its burden of showing that … loss of earnings was caused by a termination for cause and that it was unrelated to his work injury.”
On appeal with the Commonwealth Court, the worker argued his TTD benefits should be fully reinstated since the company didn’t follow its progressive discipline policy when it terminated his employment.
However, the court found that the “employer’s purported failure to follow its progressive disciplinary policy does not affect” the judge’s decision since there was “substantial competent evidence” that suitable light-duty work was available to the worker if his actions hadn’t led to his justified termination from employment.