New Appeals Court Decision Limits Employers’ Ability to Fight Temporary Total Disability Following Termination
In State ex rel. Autozone Stores, Inc. v. Industrial Commission, 2023-Ohio-633, the Tenth District issued Ohio’s first appellate review of R.C. 4123.56(F), which went into effect in 2020.
R.C. 4123.56(F) states, in part:
If an employee is unable to work or suffers a wage loss as the direct result of an impairment arising from an injury or occupational disease, the employee is entitled to receive compensation under this section, provided the employee is otherwise qualified. If an employee is not working or has suffered a wage loss as the direct result of reasons unrelated to the allowed injury or occupational disease, the employee is not eligible to receive compensation under this section.
R.C. 4123.56(F) supersedes any previous cases establishing the doctrine of “voluntary abandonment,” which blocked disability benefits for claimants who voluntarily removed themselves from the workforce or were terminated for violation of work rules.
In Autozone, the claimant was injured on June 15, 2020 but worked light duty until his termination for cause in September 2020, following an argument with a coworker. The claimant requested temporary total disability (“TTD”) in October 2020 and underwent an approved shoulder surgery in November 2020.
The Industrial Commission granted the claimant’s request for TTD beginning the date of his surgery. His employer brought a mandamus action before the Tenth District, arguing he was not entitled to TTD pursuant to R.C. 4123.56(F). The Tenth District affirmed the Commission’s decision and rejected the employer’s arguments.
The employer argued that, per the bolded language of R.C. 4123.56(F) cited above, the claimant was not entitled to TTD because the surgery was not the reason he was off work—rather it was his prior termination for cause. Therefore, the claimant was off work “as the direct result of reasons unrelated to his injury.” The employer further argued that the claimant had no “wage loss” because he had already been terminated before he underwent the surgery. The Tenth District disagreed, stating:
Overall, we find the text of R.C. 4123.56(F) to be unambiguous. If a claimant is unable to work, R.C. 4123.56(F) sets forth two operative questions to be eligible for TTD compensation: (1) whether he or she is unable to work as the direct result of an impairment arising from an injury or occupational disease; and (2) whether he or she is otherwise qualified to receive TTD compensation. R.C. 4123.56(F) does not impose an additional requirement on a claimant to prove he or she is unable to work solely due to an impairment arising from an injury or occupational disease. Only when an otherwise qualified claimant is not working as a direct result of reasons unrelated to the allowed injury or occupational disease is the claimant ineligible to receive TTD compensation.
The court did not invoke the principles of voluntary abandonment that existed prior to the enactment of R.C. 4123.56(F) and, in fact, cautioned against their return:
Although the employer implies we should analyze the effect of the termination and whether evidence exists that claimant had abandoned the workforce prior to his approved surgery, this is exactly the analysis the legislature expressly superseded by enacting R.C. 4123.56(F). Contrary to the employer's position, R.C. 4123.56(F) requires us to review only whether the claimant in this case was unable to work as the direct result of an impairment arising from an injury or occupational disease to support the grant of TTD for the period specified.
While Autozone is not an ideal starting point for the interpretation of R.C. 4123.56(F), the case law will continue to evolve. It is worth noting the unique facts of Autozone that may ultimately distinguish it from other cases. For example, despite an internal investigation prior to the claimant’s termination, he received unemployment compensation because his termination was found to be “without just cause” by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. While the determinations of other government agencies have limited impact on workers’ compensation claims, such determinations could be considered in a mandamus action and were, indeed, cited in Autozone.
As a second example, the claimant in Autozone was on light duty at the time of his termination and waited only two months to undergo surgery. His intention to “abandon” the workforce may have been more evident if he had been working full duty at the time of termination but subsequently waited six months or more to undergo surgery.
Mandamus actions like Autozone address a narrow set of facts and consider only whether the Industrial Commission had some evidence to support its orders. Employers should contact your Dinsmore attorney in situations where an injured worker has requested TTD subsequent to separation from employment.
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