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Fired worker can still receive total-Disability benefits

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in Employee Benefits Program,Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that an injured employee may continue to receive temporary total-disability benefits even if he no longer qualifies for his position. The case touches on many issues employers face in today’s workplace: employee medical restrictions, substance abuse and Ohio’s workers’ compensation system.

A stiff knee, a few stiff drinks

Johnny Calderwood drove trucks for Omnisource, Inc. He injured his knee on the job on July 1, 2003. The Ohio workers’ compensation system paid his claim and, in November of that year, Calderwood’s attending physician certified him as temporarily totally disabled as he prepared for knee surgery.

Calderwood was recovering from his operation on New Year’s Day 2004 when he was pulled over for driving under the influence (DUI). It was Calderwood’s second DUI in two years. His license was suspended on Jan. 6. He pleaded not guilty on Jan. 15, and the court granted occupational driving privileges pending his trial.

By February, Calderwood’s knee had improved enough for his doctor to allow him to return to a light-duty position at Omnisource. The doctor restricted his activities to lifting no more than 20 pounds and working indoors, with no bending, stooping, squatting, kneeling or climbing. Omnisource ignored the restrictions and assigned Calderwood to a job requiring considerable walking and stair climbing.

Within a few weeks, Calderwood’s knee gave out again while he was climbing stairs. He fell, injuring his neck. Again, his doctor placed him on temporary total disability.

Calderwood’s commercial driver’s license expired a few weeks later. In April, he was convicted of DUI. His sentence included a one-year suspension of his driver’s license and 30 days of jail time, all but five of which were suspended. Calderwood served the five days.

Termination and litigation

Once Omnisource found out about Calderwood’s conviction, it demanded he produce a valid commercial driver’s license within two days. When he failed to do so, Omnisource terminated him. But the company went one step further: It stopped paying Calderwood’s temporary total-disability benefit, despite the fact he was still medically eligible for it.

Calderwood appealed the action to the Industrial Commission of Ohio to reinstate the benefit. The commission noted that the only valid reason for terminating a disability benefit is a worker’s voluntary abandonment of his position. Since that was not the case here, the commission reinstated the benefit.

Omnisource appealed to the Franklin County Court of Appeals, which agreed with the commission’s position. But it added a twist, ruling the commission should determine whether Calderwood’s second DUI conviction should require a lifetime ban from commercial driving. If so, benefits could be denied.

Calderwood, now joined by the commission, appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. The high court sided with the commission and overturned the Appeals Court’s decision. The Supreme Court ruled that “a claimant can abandon a … position … only if the claimant was physically capable of doing that job at the time.” Calderwood kept the benefits.

The big picture

In most cases, employers may terminate employees who are receiving workers’ comp disability benefits, but the benefits continue for as long as the worker is medically entitled to them. In this case, because Calderwood needed a commercial driver’s license to do his job, Omnisource could fire him.

But employers should be careful when terminating employees receiving workers’ compensation benefits. The ADA—which protects qualified workers with disabilities—comes into play here. Employers can only terminate disabled workers if they can demonstrate that the worker is no longer qualified to perform the job’s essential functions, or that no reasonable accommodation would allow the worker to do the job.

Omnisource didn’t help its position in court when it forced Calderwood to work beyond his medical restrictions. Once Calderwood re-injured himself, Omnisource was on the hook and neither the courts nor the commission was going to let it off.

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