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February 05, 2010
Was Fired Employee Entitled to Workers’ Comp Benefits?
Is an employee who received workers’ compensation benefits from his employer still entitled to those benefits after he is fired for conduct unrelated to the injury?

What happened. “Keith” worked for Interstate Scaffolding of Hazel Crest. He sustained a work-related injury in 2003, which resulted in various persistent aches and pains. Keith continued his employment with Interstate, but his doctor often required him to remain off work due to his medical condition. At other times, he was able to work “light duty” with restrictions. Keith received temporary total disability (TTD) worker’s comp benefits when he could not work.

On May 25, 2005, the assistant to Interstate’s president confronted Keith when she learned that he had retained an overpayment in his paycheck. She knew that a month earlier Keith had written some religious “graffiti” or slogans in a storage room on Interstate’s premises, and accused him of being a hypocrite by retaining the overpayment in contrast to his professed beliefs. Keith became angry and called the police. After the incident, Interstate ultimately decided to fire Keith for defacing Interstate property.

Interstate refused to pay TTD benefits to Keith after firing him. The matter of whether he was entitled to benefits was heard before an arbitrator for the state Workers’ Compensation Commission, then by the Commission itself, a county circuit court, and the Illinois Court of Appeals. The appellate court determined that Keith was not entitled to TTD benefits after his termination “for cause.” Keith appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

What the court said. The question was whether an employer could cease paying TTD benefits if the employee commits a willful act of misconduct that serves as justification for his termination. The court looked to the state Workers’ Compensation Act, and found that nothing in the law supported such a 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,” the court wrote. “An injured employee's entitlement to TTD benefits is a completely separate issue and may not be conditioned on the propriety of the discharge.” It reversed the appellate court’s decision and reinstated Keith’s award of benefits. Interstate Scaffolding Inc., v. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission et al., No. 107852, (1/22/10)

Point to remember. The court held that the dispositive test for whether an employee is entitled to benefits is whether his/her condition has stabilized and he has reached maximum medical improvement. If the employee is able to show that he continues to be temporarily totally disabled as a result of the work-related injury, he is entitled to TTD benefits.

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