September 26, 2012
Injury or Voluntary Retirement?

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Can a person who permanently leaves the work force for reasons unrelated to his or her industrial injury receive temporary total disability compensation? That was the issue at the heart of a case that we handled here at the Supreme Court of Ohio earlier this year.

The case involved a claimant named Ronald R. Corman. When Ronald was injured at work, he filed for temporary total disability compensation. But the Industrial Commission of Ohio – the entity which handles such matters – denied his application.

In reaching that decision, the Industrial Commission found – among other things – that Ronald had abandoned the work force for reasons that were unrelated to the injury that he had sustained at work. But Ronald challenged that decision.

Initially, Ronald had a workers’ compensation claim that was allowed by the Industrial Commission. That claim arose from an injury that he suffered in 2002, when Ronald worked for a company called Allied Holdings, Inc.

A year after his injury, Ronald retired from Allied Holdings. He never worked again – at Allied Holdings or any other place for that matter. But the record pertaining to his case contained no evidence that he was medically incapable of other work.

In 2009, the Industrial Commission denied Ronald’s request to have his temporary total disability compensation reinstated. Among its findings, the Industrial Commission concluded that Ronald’s retirement was voluntary and that it was unrelated to the injury that he sustained while he was working for Allied Holdings.

In denying his request, the Industrial Commission noted that Ronald never sought other work in the years after he left Allied Holdings. The Industrial Commission concluded that Ronald – by not seeking other work – had demonstrated his intent to permanently abandon the labor market.

In response to the Industrial Commission’s denial of his request, Ronald filed a complaint in the Court of Appeals for Franklin County. He alleged that the Industrial Commission had abused its discretion by denying him temporary total disability compensation.

But the court of appeals agreed that Ronald had voluntarily abandoned the work force for reasons that were unrelated to his workplace injury. The court of appeals thus denied his complaint.

After that, Ronald brought his case before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio – for a final review.

The purpose of temporary total disability is to compensate claimants “for the loss of earnings which he [or she] incurs while the injury heals.” There “can be no lost earnings, however, or even a potential for lost earnings,” if the person filing the claim is no longer part of the active work force. Thus, “when the reason for this absence from the work force is unrelated to the industrial injury, temporary total disability compensation is foreclosed.”

There were important similarities between Ronald’s case and one that we reviewed in 2008 involving a claimant named Pierron. Both Ronald and Pierron sought temporary total disability compensation years after retiring from their former positions of employment.

In those intervening years, neither individual made a credible effort to secure other employment. Neither claimant – Ronald or Pierron – produced evidence of a medical inability to perform other work during those years, which prompted the Industrial Commission to conclude in each case that the claimant had permanently left the work force.

In upholding the Industrial Commission’s order in the Pierron case, we explained that “when a departure from the entire work force is not motivated by injury, we presume it to be a lifestyle choice.” And, as we explained in another case, “workers’ compensation benefits were never intended to subsidize lost or diminished earnings attributable to lifestyle decisions.”

In the Pierron case, the injured worker did not choose to leave his employer in 1997. He left because his job was eliminated. But once that separation occurred, Pierron had a choice. He could either seek other employment or work no further. Pierron chose to work no further.

As we wrote in that case, Pierron “cannot therefore credibly allege that his lack of income from 2001 and beyond is due to industrial injury. Accordingly, he is ineligible for temporary total disability compensation.”

Ronald made an attempt to distinguish his case from Pierron’s, but we did not find his argument persuasive. Ronald contended that he retired from his former position of employment with Allied Holdings because of his injury. That claim was not made in the Pierron case.

But the Industrial Commission did not find that Ronald’s departure from Allied Holdings was injury-induced. And, even if the Industrial Commission had come to that conclusion, it would not have advanced Ronald’s cause.

As in the Pierron case, there was no evidence of a medical inability to perform other work in the years between Ronald’s departure from Allied Holdings and his request for temporary total disability compensation.

So, in the end, Ronald had the same choice as Pierron – either seek other employment or work no further. When Ronald elected to work no further, he eliminated the possibility of, or potential for, lost wages. Therefore, he cannot credibly claim that he has lost income due to his industrial injury.

It was a pretty straightforward conclusion. And thus – by a vote of seven-to-zero – we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals. Ronald voluntarily abandoned the work force for reasons unrelated to his injury, and thus he cannot receive temporary total disability compensation.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is State ex rel. Corman v. Allied Holdings, Inc., 132 Ohio St.3d 202, 2012-Ohio-2579. Case No. 2010-2002. Decided June 14, 2012. Opinion Per Curiam.