• Supreme Court of Ohio Restricts the Rights of an Employer to Terminate Employees Receiving Workers' Compensation Benefits
  • November 14, 2003
  • Law Firm: Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, LLP - Akron Office
  • On October 22, 2003, the Supreme Court of Ohio announced a decision that significantly undercuts the attendance policies of many employers. The Court held that employees receiving temporary total disability compensation under a workers' compensation claim may not be discharged from employment as a result of their absenteeism or inability to work as long as it is related to the workers' compensation injuries. This decision in Coolidge v. Riverdale Local School District, (2003), 100 Ohio St 3d 141, represents a deviation from past Ohio case law regarding this issue.

    Prior Ohio case law had held that attendance policies could be enforced against employees receiving workers' compensation benefits as long as the policies were neutral in application. That is, the policies had to be drafted and enforced against all employees regardless of the cause of their extended absence. Such a policy might state that an employee absent from work for any reason for six months would be terminated. In light of the unanimous decision in Coolidge , employees are immune from such attendance policies if they are absent in conjunction with approved workers' compensation claims and are receiving temporary total disability compensation.

    In its decision, the Court ruled that the public policy considerations underlying the Ohio workers' compensation system prevented the termination of employees who were absent from work as a result of a workers' compensation injury while receiving temporary total disability compensation. Essentially, the Court's decision creates an indefinite leave for absent employees who are receiving temporary total disability compensation until they have completed their recovery from the industrial injury. The Court's ruling appears to be dependent upon the fact that the employee is receiving temporary total disability compensation under the workers' compensation claim. An employee whose absence from work is alleged to be related to a workers' compensation injury but who is not receiving temporary total disability compensation would not appear to receive the Coolidge protection from termination.

    The Court went one step further in providing protection to these absent employees who are receiving temporary total disability compensation. The Court held that an employee may not be discharged for failing to complete leave-of-absence forms or otherwise notifying the employer of the anticipated length of the absence, when the employer is aware of the employee's medical status through the workers' compensation claim.

    As a result of the Coolidge decision, all employers will need to immediately review their leave-of-absence policies and consider modifying them to ensure compliance with Coolidge. Unfortunately, the Coolidge case does not provide the employers of Ohio with any real guidance regarding the total impact of this decision. While it is clear that an employee may not be terminated under such circumstances, there is no clear indication whether such an extended absence under a workers' compensation claim can be considered when determining an inactive employee's eligibility for other benefits such as group medical insurance.

    For now, it would appear that the Coolidge decision should be interpreted narrowly as only restricting an employer's right to discharge an employee who is receiving temporary total disability compensation. Any remaining attendance and modified duty policies should not be abandoned, but will need to be considered in the overall evaluation of the leave-of-absence policies.