Two cases involving firings and injuries, two different outcomes. Why were they decided differently?
The first case comes from Ohio. Cynthia Sheets worked for Cellco Partnership, Verizon Wireless. On Sept. 9, 2013, a customer complained that Sheets had permitted someone else to access and view their account.
The company’s guidelines prohibit that, and Verizon started an investigation.
According to court documents, video surveillance showed Sheets allowing an unauthorized person to view a client’s account information.
On Oct. 3, 2013, Sheets’ manager asked her about the incident, and Sheets denied the allegations.
Verizon managers and HR decided on Oct. 3 to fire Sheets. The next day, they filed all the necessary internal paperwork to do that, and decided to fire her the following Monday, Oct. 7.
On the morning of Oct. 7, Sheets tripped and fell at work. Her injuries included sprains to her neck, right shoulder, right knee and three fingers, and two herniated discs.
Sheets filed for workers’ comp. A district hearing officer granted her total temporary disability (TTD) benefits.
Verizon argued Sheets shouldn’t receive TTD compensation because she was fired for reasons unrelated to her injuries.
The company appealed to the Ohio Industrial Commission which overturned the decision and denied TTD benefits to Sheets who took her case to a state appeals court.
The appeals court noted that a previous court decision in Ohio held that:
“if a claimant is injured by the same misconduct that led to their termination, eligibility for TTD compensation is not compromised. The court wanted to prevent employers from terminating employees in order to avoid paying TTD compensation.”
But in this case, Sheets’ firing was unrelated to her workplace injury. The decision to fire her was made on Oct. 3. She just happened to trip, fall and become injured on the morning of the day the company intended to let her go. Sheets was denied workers’ comp benefits.
(Cynthia D. Sheets v. Industrial Commission of Ohio et al., Court of Appeals of Ohio 10th Dist., No. 16AP-22, 3/30/17)
Cursed out his boss
The second case had a different outcome.
Douglas Waid worked for Masterbrand Cabinets in Indiana. On June 6, 2014, Waid slipped while working and injured his lower back. He told his supervisor right away but said he didn’t think he needed medical treatment.
Waid’s pain got worse and on June 24 he was referred to a doctor by Masterbrand. The doctor returned Waid to full duty. After working a full shift, he wasn’t able to get out of bed the next day.
On June 26, 2014, he returned to work and got into a verbal altercation with his supervisor regarding his back pain. Waid threw an ice pack which nearly hit another employee and cursed at his supervisor. Masterbrand suspended Waid who had been coached several times for his workplace conduct, particularly anger issues. The company fired him effective July 2, 2014.
Waid returned to the doctor on July 1, 2014 who set lifting restrictions for him. On Sept. 29, 2014, the doctor released Waid from treatment, finding he’d reached maximum medical improvement.
Waid filed for workers’ comp benefits.
An independent medical examiner found Waid had an exacerbation of a pre-existing back condition including a protruding disc. The IME said Waid could return to sedentary work but he might require surgery.
Given the IME’s report, a hearing officer found Waid was entitled to temporary total disability (TTD) benefits from June 27, 2014.
Masterbrand appealed the hearing officer’s decision to the Indiana Workers’ Compensation Board. The company said Waid wasn’t entitled to TTD benefits because he was fired for misconduct. The Board affirmed the ruling that Waid should receive benefits. Then Masterbrand appealed to a state court.
Waid argued he was entitled to workers’ comp benefits because he didn’t have the ability to return to the same type of work he’d been doing. Masterbrand said Waid’s firing was the reason he wasn’t able to work, not because of his injury.
Indiana’s workers’ comp law says once begun, TTD benefits can be terminated if the employee is unable or unavailable to work for reasons unrelated to the injury.
But that isn’t applicable to Waid’s case. The section of the law applies to the termination of TTD benefits. Waid’s case involves whether they should be started in the first place.
The appeals court said the relevant question in this case is whether Waid’s inability to work, even for other employers, was related to his injury.
Since that was the case, the appeals court ruled the Board was correct: Waid should receive TTD workers’ comp benefits.
(Masterbrand Cabinets v. Douglas Waid, Court of Appeals of Indiana, No. 93A02-1609-EX-2228, 3/30/17)
This is a good time to remind everyone: Workers’ comp laws and court rulings vary from state to state.
However, in cases similar to these, many states have taken into consideration that allowing a company to withhold workers’ comp benefits because the employee was fired opens up the possibility that some unscrupulous employers would look for reasons to fire an injured employee. The first case in this post (Sheets) is more the exception than the rule because of its unique circumstances: The company had taken steps to fire Sheets before she was injured.