February 11, 2010

Clarifying a common question for Illinois employers, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in January 2010 that an employer must continue to pay workers' compensation benefits, even after the employer fires an injured employee for reasons unrelated to the injury.

Noting that it had never directly addressed the issue before, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously held that an employer's obligation to pay temporary total disability (TTD) workers' comp benefits to an injured employee does not end simply because the employee was fired with or without cause. The court explained that when an employer terminates an injured employee, the central issue in deciding entitlement to TTD benefits focuses on whether the employee's injury has stabilized. If the fired employee can show that he or she continues to be temporarily totally disabled as a result of a work-related injury, then the employee remains entitled to TTD benefits, the court explained.

Anatomy of the Case

The case in question, Interstate Scaffolding Inc. v. Illinois Workers' Compensation Comm'n, involved a union carpenter who suffered a work-related injury to his head, neck and back in 2003. The employee returned to work shortly after his injury, but continued to suffer from headaches, pain and numbness. The employee, who was periodically restricted from working or assigned to light duty, received TTD benefits when he could not work and a "maintenance benefit" when working light duty.

Two years after the employee suffered his work-related injury, the employer fired the carpenter for writing graffiti on its property and stopped paying all TTD benefits. Initially, an Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission arbitrator found that the employee was not entitled to continuing TTD benefits after his termination. Ultimately, the case reached the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled that the employee was, in fact, entitled to continuing TTD benefits because the underlying purpose of the Workers' Compensation Act is to provide financial protection to injured workers. Just because the employer fired the employee for reasons unrelated to the workers' comp injury didn't mean the employee no longer needed this financial protection, the court ruled.

Employer Lessons

This decision makes it clear that an employer must pay TDD benefits to an employee who is fired for reasons unrelated to a workers' comp injury. The employer in Interstate Scaffolding terminated the employee for reasons completely unrelated to the injury, and therefore did not risk a retaliatory discharge claim. Illinois employers should remember, however, that firing an employee for reasons that are related to a workers' comp claim constitutes retaliatory discharge and remains illegal.

Firing employees, whether or not they have filed a workers' comp claim, can be a minefield for employers. Therefore, it pays to consult a labor and employment attorney for help in identifying where the mines are, and how to avoid them. If you have questions about TTD benefits or other issues related to retaliatory discharge, contact me or another member of the firm's Labor & Employment group.

This article contains material of general interest and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. Under applicable rules of professional conduct, this content may be regarded as attorney advertising.