Quit for Personal Reasons Constitutes Voluntary Abandonment
State ex rel. Hildebrand v. Wingate Transport, Inc., ___ Ohio St.3d ___, 2015-Ohio-167 (1/22/15).
Issue: Did the Industrial Commission properly deny temporary total compensation to an injured worker who had quit their employment while limited to light duty work, based on the voluntary abandonment doctrine?
Background: Hildebrand was injured and returned to work with a doctor’s note restricting him to light duty. During a phone conversation with the employer about his ability to work, the employer told Hildebrand to return the key to a jeep which the employer had loaned him. Eventually, the police came and caused Hildebrand to leave the workplace.
A week later, Hildebrand filed for unemployment compensation. His unemployment compensation claim was denied, based on a finding that he had quit his job for personal reasons.
Hildebrand also filed for workers’ compensation benefits. Although his claim was allowed, the Industrial Commission denied temporary total, finding that he had voluntarily abandoned his employment. Hildebrand filed a mandamus challenge to the Industrial Commission’s decision. The Court of Appeals denied the writ, and Hildebrand appealed.
Decision: Supreme Court affirms.
Temporary total provides compensation when the allowed condition temporarily prevents the injured worker from returning to work. The Court states that this “requires a causal connection between the inability to work and the industrial injury.”
This requirement of a causal connection forms the basis of the court-created doctrine of abandonment of employment. Under the abandonment doctrine, “an injured worker who voluntarily leaves a position of employment is generally barred from receiving temporary-total-disability compensation.”
Hildebrand argued that he was not barred from receiving temporary total because at the time he quit he was not capable of performing the employment he had done when injured. Hildebrand based this argument on the Supreme Court’s decision in State ex rel. Pretty Products (1996), 77 Ohio St.3d at 7, which held that an injured worker who was injured at the time they left their employment could not be found to have voluntarily abandoned that employment.
The Supreme Court distinguishes Pretty Products based on the facts of the present case. The Supreme Court indicates that Pretty Products, and later cases relying on Pretty Products, involved workers who were fired while receiving temporary total. The Court states that those workers:
had therefore already demonstrated that he or she was disabled as a result of an industrial injury (which was the cause of a loss of earnings). Pretty Products held that a subsequent termination did not change that, so the disabled worker continued to be entitled to temporary-total-disability compensation despite having been terminated from employment.
The Court states that Hildebrand’s decision to quit his job, rather than the injury, caused his lost earnings and, therefore, he is not entitled to temporary total.
Editor’s Comment: There is a strong dissent from Justice O’Neill in this case, pointing out “how the judicially created labyrinth of voluntary abandonment undermines Ohio’s constitutional and statutory system of workers’ compensation.” As Justice O’Neill indicates, it is questionable whether Hildebrand actually quit (as determined by the majority) or was fired when the police forced him off the premises. According to Justice O’Neill,
the concept of voluntary abandonment is purely a judicial construct that should be applied sparingly, if ever. And I would hold as a matter of law that you are not quitting your job when you are summarily marched off the premises of your employer by a police officer.
Justice O’Neill also points out that the majority’s opinion departs from the determination in Pretty Products that when an injured worker is disabled at the time they leave their employment there is no need to examine the issue of voluntary abandonment.
Another problem with the majority’s opinion, not mentioned by Justice O’Neill, involves the effect of the majority’s limitation of Pretty Products to situations where an injured worker was already receiving temporary total while fired. What happens when an employer fires an employee after they are injured, but before they are awarded temporary total? Until this decision limited Pretty Products, that decision supported awarding such employees temporary total compensation.
Will the Court recognize that such employees have not voluntarily abandoned their employment, or will the Court indicate that because the employer fired them while they were injured, but before the Commission recognized that they were temporarily and totally disabled due to the injury, they are not entitled to temporary total compensation under the rationale of the present case?
As Justice O’Neill pointed out, the abandonment doctrine was not created by the legislature, but is a court-created doctrine. As such, it should be applied sparingly and should not be used to provide employers with an incentive to fire injured workers.