The Illinois Supreme Court recently held that if following a work-related injury an employee returns to work on a light-duty assignment, but is subsequently terminated for conduct unrelated to the injury, an employer must continue paying temporary total disability (TTD) benefits to the employee. Interstate Scaffolding, Inc. v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission.
In Interstate Scaffolding, following a work-related injury, the claimant returned to work on a light duty assignment and began receiving TTD benefits to make up the difference in income between his pay as a carpenter and his light duty pay. After terminating the claimant for misconduct, the Company stopped paying him TTD benefits. The claimant subsequently filed an application for adjustment with the Workers’ Compensation Commission (the “Commission”). At the hearing, the claimant submitted into evidence his medical records and testified that he continued to experience pain as a result of the work-related injury. The arbitrator held that the claimant was entitled to TTD benefits. On review, the Commission modified the arbitrator’s ruling and found that the claimant was only entitled to TTD benefits for the five weeks between his termination and the arbitration hearing. The circuit court affirmed the decision. On further appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the Commission, reasoning that to allow an employee to continue collecting TTD benefits following a “for cause” termination did not advance the goal under the Workers’ Compensation Act (the “Act”) to compensate employees for work-related injuries.
The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the holding of the Illinois Appellate Court, concluding that the Act does not permit the denial, suspension or termination of TTD benefits to an employee who remains injured, yet has been discharged for misconduct unrelated to his injury. According to the Court, therefore, the test for determining if an employee is entitled to TTD benefits is whether the employee’s condition has stabilized (i.e., reached maximum medical improvement) such that the employee is capable of returning to work. That, the Court emphasized, is the decisive factor, even when injured employees have been discharged by their employers.
This decision reaffirms and establishes several important principles of Illinois law. First, it remains the law in Illinois that an at-will employee may be discharged for any reason or no reason, so long as the discharge does not violate any law or public policy. Second, whether an employee has been discharged for a valid cause, or whether the discharge violates some public policy, are irrelevant in workers’ compensation cases. Finally, an injured employee’s entitlement to TTD benefits is a completely separate issue and may not be conditioned on the propriety of the discharge.