Illinois employers now have to think twice about terminating an employee for any reason while the employee is working in a light duty fashion, unless it wants to continue to pay the employee temporary total disability benefits. On January 22, 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court issued its decision as to whether an employer’s obligation to pay temporary total disability benefits ceases when an employer terminates an employee for conduct unrelated to the injury. The answer: No, the employer still owes TTD unless and until the employee has reached maximum medical improvement.
The case, Interstate Scaffolding v. IWCC, involved a union worker who injured his head, neck and back on the job in 2003. At various times after the accident the petitioner was either off of work or working light duty and receiving temporary partial disability benefits to make up the difference between his pre-injury pay and his light duty pay. Following a rather unusual set of circumstances not pertinent here, the employee was terminated from his light duty job for defacing company property.
Also terminated were the petitioner’s weekly temporary total disability benefits. Since the petitioner continued to treat and continued to receive light duty work restrictions from his physician, he sought reinstatement of TTD before the Commission. The Arbitrator found that the petitioner was not entitled to temporary total disability benefits subsequent to his termination. However, the Arbitrator did not explain the reasoning. On review, the Commission reversed the Arbitrator’s decision and awarded TTD due to the fact that the petitioner’s condition had not stabilized. That decision was confirmed on review to the circuit court. Upon the employer’s further appeal, the Appellate Court concluded that the petitioner was not entitled to TTD benefits since he was terminated for cause.
The employee argued before the Supreme Court that he was entitled to TTD until such time as his medical condition stabilized, notwithstanding his dismissal. Conversely, the employer argued that it was allowed to cease payment of TTD since the employee committed a volitional act of misconduct that served as justification for his termination.
The Supreme Court found that there was no reasonable construction of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act that supported a finding that an employer may discontinue TTD to an employee who remains injured yet was discharged for his own volitional conduct. Instead, the Court found that the proper test for determining whether an employee was entitled to TTD was whether he remained temporarily totally disabled and whether he was capable of returning to the work force. Here is a brief excerpt of the Supreme Court’s opinion:
“[The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act] should be liberally construed to effectuate its main purpose — providing financial protection for injured workers. In our view, the Act’s purpose is not furthered by automatically denying TTD benefits to an injured employee simply because he has been discharged by his employer. 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 TTD benefits is a completely separate issue and may not be conditioned on the propriety of the discharge. When an injured employee has been discharged by his employer, the determinative inquiry for deciding entitlement to TTD benefits remains, as always, whether the claimant’s condition has stabilized.”
It is now the law in Illinois that when an injured employee is terminated for cause while working in a light duty capacity, the employer is liable for the payment of TTD subsequent to the termination until the petitioner reaches maximum medical improvement.