Workers’ comp pending? Discipline with care

Are you disputing an employee’s workers’ compensation claim? Be careful how you handle absences during the time the case is working its way through the system.

Yes, you can let the employee know that the absences may end up counting against him. But it’s best not to make any final decisions pending the outcome of the workers’ comp claim.

Recent case: Bruce hurt his knee at work and had surgery to repair the damage, paid for through the workers’ compensation system. After several months off work, he returned to his old job with the same pay, duties and benefits as before.

Then a few months later, he said he needed still more knee surgery. This time, the employer denied responsibility for the injury under workers’ comp.

Bruce had the surgery anyway and took more time off to recover. Meanwhile, he appealed the employer’s denial of workers’ compensation liability.

When he got complete medical clearance, he returned to work. While a final decision on workers’ comp liability was still pending, the employer told Bruce he had exceeded the allowable limits for time off. It did not, however, discipline him at the time.

Bruce eventually won the claim and the employer paid his medical bills and related claims.

Later, Bruce was fired for throwing something and damaging a computer screen.

He sued, alleging he had been terminated in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim and to avoid further liability for the knee injury.

The court tossed out his lawsuit. It noted that Bruce had not been officially disciplined for missing work while the claim was pending. Plus, since both Bruce and the employer apparently believed the knee had fully healed, Bruce’s claim that the employer was trying to avoid future liability for the knee made no sense. (Frymoyer v. East Penn Manufacturing, ED PA, 2017)