As is commonly known, under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act (820 ILCS 305) an employer is required to pay temporary total disability (TTD) benefits to an employee who sustains a work-related injury. Such worker's comp benefits (2/3 of your average weekly wage) are to continue until the employee returns to work – either full duty or light duty – or reaches maximum medical improvement (MMI).
What happens however, when an employee working light duty, that is, not fully healed from his work related injuries, is fired for conduct unrelated to his injury? This worker's compensation issue was presented in the case of Interstate Scaffolding, Inc. v. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, decided by the Illinois Supreme Court in January 2010. (Lipkin & Apter was not involved as the attorney of record.)
In this worker's compensation case, the petitioner worked as a carpenter and suffered serious injuries to his head, neck and back in a work accident which occurred on July 2, 2003. For the next two years, he underwent medical treatment, which at times required him to be off work and at other times allowed him to do only light duty work. While completely off work he received TTD benefits in the proper amount, and when working light-duty he received benefits which paid him the difference between his light-duty and full duty pay.
In May 2005, the petitioner wrote some religious graffiti or slogans in a storage room on company property. He was ultimately fired by the company, allegedly for the improper conduct in defacing their property. At the time of the incident, the petitioner had not yet fully recovered from his work-related injuries and was still working light duty. After firing him, the employer refused to pay further TTD benefits. The employer argued that it was justified in ceasing to offer further TTD payments to the petitioner because he was fired for conduct unrelated to his injury, conduct for which he would have been fired irrespective of his being injured.
Following trial, the arbitrator denied the petitioner worker's compensation benefits for the period after he was fired. An appeal was taken. In workers’ compensation cases there are four separate levels of appeal which are possible:
- to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (a panel of three commissioners)
- to the Illinois Circuit Court in which the workers compensation claim is pending
- to the Illinois Appellate Court
- and ultimately to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The first three levels of appeal are automatic in workers compensation cases, upon application by the losing party. The Illinois Supreme Court decides which cases it will accept, generally based on whether there are new issues of law which will be clarified by the particular case.
In the Interstate Scaffolding case, the arbitrator’s decision denying TTD benefits was reversed by the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, finding that the petitioner’s condition had not stabilized as of the date he was fired. This decision was later affirmed by the Circuit Court, which agreed that petitioner was entitled to receive TTD benefits after he was fired. The Appellate Court however, reversed, concluding that petitioner was not entitled to TTD benefits after he was fired, finding in essence that termination of benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act is proper where termination from employment was for cause. The Illinois Supreme Court again reversed, finding, “whether an employee has been discharged for a valid cause or whether the discharge violates some public policy are matters foreign to workers’ compensation cases.
An injured employee’s entitlement to workers comp benefits is a completely separate issue and may not be conditioned on the propriety of the discharge.” Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that an employer’s duty to pay benefits to an injured employee does not cease when the employee is fired for cause. Rather, the Supreme Court held that the focus should be on whether the petitioner’s condition has stabilized. “If the injured employee is able to show that he continues to be temporarily totally disabled as a result of his work-related injury, he is entitled to benefits.”
The Interstate Scaffolding decision affords important protections for injured employees. Acrimonious exchanges can occur between employer and employee, where the employee may “cross the line” and engage in offensive behavior that can justifiably result in job termination. However improper the conduct may be, it is a separate issue from whether the employee is entitled to receive ongoing workers compensation benefits. Interstate Scaffolding thus stands for the proposition that an employee may not be entitled to his job, but still be entitled to workers compensation benefits.
If You Are Injured on the Job
1. Notify your supervisor immediately.
2. Fill out an accident report, stating all possible causes of your injury, all injured body parts affected, and all witnesses to your accident. Keep a copy of the report and/or a list of the witnesses.
3. Seek medical attention as soon as possible, and be sure to tell the doctor/nurse how the accident happened and about all of your injuries.
4. Contact your Union Representative and/or your attorney to protect your legal rights.
For more information on your legal rights, contact Lipkin & Apter today. From our Chicago law firm, we represent clients across the state of Illinois.