March 2010 • Volume 98 • Number 3 • Page 122
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Temporarily totally disabled workers entitled to benefits till they improve
Employers must pay TTD to injured workers until they get better, the Illinois Supreme Court rules - even if those workers were fired for cause.
Employers must continue to pay TTD benefits to injured workers who are temporarily totally disabled, whether or not they keep their jobs, until their conditions stabilize and they reach maximum medical improvement, says a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court. The case is Interstate Scaffolding, Inc v Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, No 107852, 2010 WL 199914 (Ill Sup Ct).
The facts and lower court holdings
In July 2003, the plaintiff, Jeff Urban, was a union carpenter who suffered heat stroke on the job. While being taken to an ambulance, he fell on his head and sustained serious injuries to his head, neck, and back.
Over the next two years, Urban underwent many tests and treatments for his resulting condition. At times his doctor ordered him to remain off work, and at other times his doctor permitted him to work light duty with restrictions. When he could not work, Urban received TTD workers' compensation benefits from his employer, Interstate Scaffolding, Inc. When he was working light duty, he received a workers' compensation maintenance benefit to make up the difference in income between his pay as a carpenter and his light duty pay.
Urban and another employee had an altercation in May 2005. Interstate then fired Urban and refused to pay him any more TTD benefits.
Urban then filed an application for adjustment of claim with the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission. An arbitrator held a hearing on Urban's claim the following month. Urban submitted his medical records into evidence and testified that he continued to have pain and numbness resulting from his fall and that a doctor that Interstate had asked him to see had recommended a spinal fusion operation. Urban and the other employee also testified regarding the events that led up to Urban's dismissal.
The arbitrator found, with no explanation, that Urban was not entitled to TTD benefits after his termination. On review, the Workers' Compensation Commission modified that ruling and found that he was entitled to TTD bene fits for the five weeks between Urban's termination and the arbitration hearing. The circuit court confirmed that decision.
A divided appellate court panel reversed, agreeing with the arbitrator that Urban was not entitled to further TTD benefits after his termination. It said that allowing an employee to collect TTD benefits from his employer after being dismissed for cause would not advance the goal of compensating an employee for a work-related injury.
The dissenting justices, though agreeing with the majority that an employer could discontinue TTD benefits under those circumstances, found a case from the appellate court of North Caro lina, Sea-graves v Austin Co of Greensboro, 123 NC App 223, 472 SE2d 397 (1996) persuasive, and argued in favor of remanding the matter to the Commission for further evidence and a burden-shifting analysis of whether Interstate should have discontinued Urban's TTD benefits on his termination. The supreme court granted Urban's petition for leave to appeal.
Workers' non-injury related "volitional acts" irrelevant
The court rejected the analyses of both the appellate majority and the dissent. Emphasizing the statutory nature of the workers' compensation remedy, the court found that the Workers' Compensation Act does not permit the denial, suspension, or termination of TTD benefits as a result of the employee's discharge.
In fact, the court suggested that in considering a claim such as Urban's, an inquiry into the reasons for an employee's discharge is uncalled for. Rather, it said, the test for determining whether an employee is entitled to TTD benefits is whether the employee remains temporarily totally disabled as a result of a work-related injury and whether the employee is capable of returning to the work force.
The statute does permit the suspension or termination of TTD benefits under some circumstances, the court continued. However, it limits those circumstances to injured employees' refusal to undergo or failure to cooperate with treatment essential to their recovery, 820 ILCS 305/19(d), or refusal of work that falls within their doctors' physical restrictions, 820 ILCS 305/8(d).
The key matter for determining whether claimants are entitled to TTD benefits, the court said, is not whether they left the workforce as the result of "volitional acts of conduct (or misconduct) that are unrelated to [their] disabling condition[s]," as the appellate court had held, but, rather, whether their conditions have stabilized to the extent that they are able to reenter the work force. That, said the court, is the decisive factor, even when injured employees have been discharged by their employers.
In the case before it, the court said, Urban's condition had not stabilized and he had not yet reached maximum medical improvement at the time his employer ceased paying his TTD bene fits. That he had been fired was irrele vant. Therefore, the court reinstated the Workers' Compensation Commission's decision, including its award of benefits.