Ohio Supreme Court Strengthens Voluntary Abandonment Doctrine

On September 27, 2018, in a decision that reverses two of its prior decisions, the Ohio Supreme Court strengthened the voluntary abandonment defense used by employers to argue against temporary total compensation in a workers’ compensation claim. The opinion in State ex rel Klein v Precision Excavating and Grading Co. holds that temporary total compensation is not payable in a claim when the injured worker voluntarily removes himself from his former position of employment for reasons unrelated to the claim, even if the claimant remains disabled at the time of the separation from employment.

Supreme Court Ruling on Klein v. Precision Excavating & Grading Company

In Klein, the injured worker informed his employer on October 31, 2014 that he was moving to Florida, and asked about the procedures he needed to follow to properly quit his job. On November 3, 2014 he told a co-worker that he planned to quit in two weeks and move to Florida. He was then injured on November 5, 2014, and did not return to work after that date.  His doctor certified a period of temporary total disability from the date of injury to an estimated date of January 5, 2015.  On November 13, 2014, the claimant informed the Ohio BWC that he planned to move to Florida on November 20, 2014. At administrative hearings before the Industrial Commission of Ohio, compensation was only granted for the closed period from November 6, 2014 through November 19, 2014.  The Industrial Commission found that the claimant had abandoned his employment as of November 20, 2014, for reasons unrelated to the claim, and was not eligible for temporary total compensation from November 20, 2014 forward.

Employee’s Own Actions Preclude Workers’ Compensation Payment

Klein filed a complaint in mandamus in the Tenth District Court of Appeals, disputing the Industrial Commission’s decision to limit his compensation to the period through November 19, 2014. The Court of Appeals granted a limited writ of mandamus and returned the case to the Industrial Commission, with instructions to determine whether the claimant was physically capable of performing his former position of employment on November 20, 2014, per prior case law. The matter was appealed to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and held that the evidence supports a finding that it was Klein’s intention to leave Precision Excavating permanently and therefore his move to Florida was a voluntary abandonment of his employment that precludes payment of temporary total compensation after November 19, 2014. The Court held that it was Klein’s own actions that prevented him from returning to his former position of employment and not the workplace injury.

Ohio Supreme Court’s Striking Departure Favors Employers

This is a striking departure from prior decisions of the Ohio Supreme Court and is favorable to employers.  In its analysis, the Supreme Court acknowledged that in the various voluntary abandonment cases it had issued over the years, it had essentially created two lines of precedent for voluntary abandonment.  There was one set of rules granting compensation for employees who are terminated for cause while disabled, and another set of rules denying compensation for employees who voluntarily left the workplace. In Klein, the Court held that in both situations the relationship between the industrial injury and the loss of earnings is severed. Based on this decision employers can successfully argue voluntary abandonment against the payment of compensation, even if the injured worker is disabled at the time of the abandonment.

Related Supreme Court Rulings Not Impacted

It should be noted that the Supreme Court did not disturb the decisions Gross II, where the termination was causally related to the injury or Cordell, where the injury resulted in the discovery of the work rule violation.  Under both fact patterns, temporary total compensation will not be precluded by a voluntary abandonment argument.

Posted by Beth Weeden

 

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