• I Quit! And I Want Comp!
  • March 2, 2015 | Author: J. Jeffrey Watson
  • Law Firm: Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C. - Camp Hill Office
  • Key Points:

    • Termination of an employment relationship does not necessarily bar receipt of workers’ compensation benefits.
    • If a person is “furthering the interest of an employer” at the time of injury, he or she remains eligible for benefits.

    Generally speaking, the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act does not provide benefits for injured workers who are outside of the course and scope of employment at the time of injury. Considering this general principle, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court recently decided that an injured worker who quit his employment prior to suffering a work injury was still eligible for benefits. The worker was ultimately found to be in the furtherance of his employer’s interest, even though he had already unequivocally quit his job and handed over company property. The court cemented precedent, holding that termination of an employment relationship does not operate as a bar to workers’ compensation benefits. It also provides employers with instruction when separating workers from employment.

    In Marazas v. WCAB (Vitas Healthcare Corp.), 29 PAWCLR (LRP) 145 (Pa.Cmwlth. Aug. 11, 2014), the claimant was employed as a driver responsible for delivering medical equipment. Following a weekend in which he was on-call, the claimant returned to the employer’s premises to receive his itinerary and became unhappy with his upcoming posted driving schedule. After the manager refused to change the assignment, the claimant told his manager that he quit. At the same time, the claimant turned in his keys and phone. The manager then instructed the claimant that he had to remove his personal belongings from his truck and personally escorted the claimant to the truck. After the claimant removed his personal belongings as instructed, he tripped on a pallet jack (injuring himself), which was witnessed by the manager. The claimant was then escorted to his vehicle, at which time the claimant left the employer’s premises.

    In finding a work-related injury and awarding workers’ compensation benefits, the Workers’ Compensation Judge had found that there was no dispute that the claimant was on the employer’s premises at the time of the injury. The adjudicating judge had also determined that, although the claimant had quit before he was injured, he was acting under the direction and supervision of the manager when required to clean out his truck and was within the scope of his employment.

    In reinstating the judge’s decision that had been reversed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, the Commonwealth Court found that the claimant was in the “course and scope of employment” at the time of the injury. However, the court instructed that this catchphrase is shorthand for language contained in Section 301(c)(1) of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act and that the “operative” phrase is whether the injured worker is “actually engaged in the furtherance of the business or affairs of the employer.” That element is established if, by nature of the claimant’s employment, the worker sustains an injury caused by the premises or the employer’s affairs thereon. The court reasoned that this can include situations where the employment relationship has ceased.

    “Furthering the interest of the employer” is to be liberally construed, and focus should be on the purpose of the claimant’s activities at the time of injury. In Marazas, despite that the claimant had quit his job prior to suffering an injury, the definition was met. The claimant was still under the control of the employer while removing his belongings from the employer’s truck under the manager’s supervision.

    The court held that the facts and circumstances of Marazas are to be distinguished from situations where a work injury relates only to a final act altering the employment relationship. In this regard, the court did not disturb prior precedent and distinguished cases where alleged injuries did not occur on the employer’s premises or were temporally removed from the separation from employment.

    In reaching its conclusion, the court also declined to apply judicial estoppel—a doctrine established to ensure that parties “do not play fast and loose with facts in order to suit their interests in different actions before different tribunals.” In simultaneously defending a civil action also filed by the claimant, the employer had filed an answer asserting the exclusivity provisions of the Act by averring that the plaintiff/claimant was an employee at the time of the injury. However, the court found that the claimant voluntarily withdrew his civil action and there was no adjudication of the issue to estop the employer from denying an employment relationship at the time of the injury in the compensation litigation.

    In practice, employers should heed the lessons of Marazas when instructing individuals during a separation from employment. The Marazas court, in reviewing the record of the Workers’ Compensation Judge, singled out that the claimant was performing a “required task” at the time of injury. A vigilant employer will use discretion in directing an individual who has been separated from employment. Whether an employee is being fired or voluntarily quits, caution should be given to avoid any unnecessary supervision and control over the worker.

    In particular, when a separation from employment takes place with the ex-employee on the premises, it would be advisable to have the individual removed with as little haste as possible and with attention given to any tasks that might need to be completed, such as returning company property and communication with supervisors, subordinates, co-workers, administrators, vendors, clientele or other third parties. Off-premises employees must also be instructed accordingly.

    If at all possible, it would be wise to issue verbal and written instructions alerting that the employer-employee relationship has ceased and advising the worker to refrain from engaging in any and all activities on the employer’s behalf. In doing so, the individual should be directed by the employer that no further communication or action is expected of the employee. Not only would such a policy firmly establish a separation from employment, but it would also lay the foundation for additional litigation defenses, such as a violation of a positive work order.

    Whether the holding of Marazas would have been the same but for the claimant’s “incident” being on the premises and witnessed is up for debate. The Commonwealth Court, in cases such as Little v. WCAB (B&L Ford/Chevrolet), 23 A.3d 637 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2011) and Hepp v. WCAB (B.P. Oil Co.), 447 A.2d 337 (Pa.Cmwlth. 1982), has looked at post-termination cases with much more scrutiny. In these and other similar off-premises cases, the injured worker has had a more difficult time establishing that the alleged post-termination injury occurred in the course and scope of employment.

    Consider that, when the “final act” to alter the employment relationship continues to perpetuate the employer’s business interests, the risk remains for a compensable injury. If a truck or a desk needs to be cleared, the price of a box and postage will be far less than the potential exposure for an injury.