Illinois Courts Revisit Interstate Scaffolding

Workers’ Compensation claimants who are fired for reasons that are completely unrelated to their claim may still be entitled to TTD benefits, as established by the well-known Interstate Scaffolding Inc. v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 236 Ill.2d 132, 923 N.E.2d 266 (2010). Since Interstate Scaffolding, there has been a lack of clarity whether employees who have work restrictions and are fired are always entitled to total temporary disability benefits. In late 2012, the IWCC issued a decision, Walter Matuszczak vs. Wal-Mart, 10 IL.W.C. 11819 (Ill. Indus. Com’n Oct. 5, 2012), that revisited Interstate Scaffolding, distinguishing and elaborating on the Illinois Supreme Court ruling in that case.

In Matuszczak, the claimant worked as a product stacker when, on March 7, 2010, containers that weighed 150-200 pounds fell on him, causing injuries to his neck, back, and right arm. On March 10, 2010, the claimant was given light duty work restrictions, which were accommodated by the employer. By June of 2011, the claimant continued to work with light duty restrictions and was still treating.

On June 12, 2011, the claimant was terminated due to the fact that he repeatedly stole cigarettes from his employer. The claimant was unable to find a job that would accommodate his work restrictions and demanded TTD benefits, which the employer denied.

At arbitration, the claimant was awarded TTD benefits from the date of termination onward. The Arbitrator relied on Interstate Scaffolding, stating, “even when the employee has been discharged, whether or not the discharge was for cause … the inquiry for deciding his entitlement to TTD benefits remains, as always, whether the claimant’s condition has stabilized. More to the point, the court [in Interstate Scaffolding] noted that if the injured employee is able to show that he continues to be temporarily totally disabled as a result of his work related injury, the employee is entitled to these benefits.”

The employer appealed, and the Commission, providing a bit of hope to employers in Illinois, reversed and modified the Arbitrator’s decision on the issue of entitlement to TTD benefits. The employer had argued that the claimant’s decision to steal cigarettes amounted to a voluntary refusal of light duty work due to the fact that the claimant knew he might be fired for theft. The Commission then addressed Interstate Scaffolding in detail, asserting that Interstate Scaffolding does not prohibit a denial of TTD benefits in every situation where an employee with work restrictions is fired.  The Commission stated, “We do not believe that the Interstate Scaffolding decision stands for the proposition that an injured employee, whose employment has been terminated, has an unqualified or absolute right to temporary total disability benefits[.]”

The Commission elaborated that while Interstate Scaffolding establishes that claimants who are terminated do not necessarily lose their entitlement to TTD benefits, a claimant is not entitled to benefits if the claimant is offered work by the employer that would accommodate their restrictions and the claimant voluntarily refuses to accept that work.  The Commission noted that the claimant in this case testified that he knew that theft was a criminal act that could result in him being fired and that if he had not been fired then the employer would have likely continued to accommodate his work restrictions.  Accordingly, the Commission found that the claimant’s decision to steal cigarettes on multiple occasions was effectively a decision to not accept the light duty work that the employer had offered him. Therefore, the Commission concluded that the claimant was not entitled to TTD benefits.

Unfortunately for Illinois employers, this story does not yet have a happy ending.  On March 23, 2013 the DuPage County Circuit Court reversed the Commission, without providing a written decision, in 2012 MR 001631. The case has been appealed to the Second District Appellate Court, who will hopefully provide a clear and comprehensive analysis of the relationship between TTD benefits and the termination of an employee for cause. Check back with us soon, as we will be providing additional updates when the Appellate Court’s decision is published.

Thanks to I&F attorney Michael Bantz for the summary of this important case.

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