March 5, 2014
Injury, Retirement & Workers' Comp

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Gerald E. Hoffman was working as a mechanic for Rexam Beverage Can Company when he injured his knee on February 11, 2003. Five months later, in July, he had surgery on the injured knee. After a period of recovery and rehabilitation, he returned to work in October 2003, without any restrictions relative to his injury.

But in 2008, Gerald began to see Dr. Nabil Ebraheim because of continuing knee problems. In March 2008, Dr. Ebraheim administered an injection into Gerald’s right knee. Dr. Ebraheim released Gerald to work, but with climbing and walking restrictions.

As it turned out, Rexam Beverage wasn’t able to accommodate those restrictions, so Gerald did not return to work.  In May 2008, he was awarded temporary-total-disability compensation. That compensation was retroactive to February. Then in October, he was awarded Social Security disability, which was retroactive to August.

Also in October – on the 17th – Gerald’s wife informed Rexam that Gerald intended to retire in November. Charlotte Reilly, vice president of benefits, notified Gerald that he was eligible for early retirement based on his age (63) and his years of service (more than 30).

Reilly also informed Gerald that because of his workers’ compensation status, he could not “elect to retire and begin his pension benefit unless he did not intend to return to work following the completion of Workers’ Compensation.” Gerald elected not to retire at that time, and he continued to receive temporary-total-disability compensation.

On January 23, 2009, Gerald underwent surgery for a total knee replacement. Dr. Ebraheim later reported that Gerald had reached maximum medical improvement on May 1, 2009. With that report, the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation notified Gerald that his temporary-total-disability compensation was terminated, effective April 30, 2009.

Then, on August 1, 2009, Gerald officially retired from Rexam at the age of 64. But his workers’ compensation case wasn’t over yet.

On December 21, 2010, Gerald underwent another knee surgery. Afterward, he filed once again for temporary-total-disability compensation. But a staff hearing officer at the Industrial Commission of Ohio – which handles such matters – denied the application on the basis that Gerald had voluntarily retired and abandoned the workforce, and thus he was ineligible for temporary-total-disability compensation.

After his claim was denied, Gerald filed a complaint for a writ with the court of appeals. He alleged that the Industrial Commission’s decision was not supported by evidence in the record, and that it constituted an abuse of discretion.  But the court of appeals denied the writ.

Gerald then brought his case before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio – for a final review.

To be entitled to what is called an “extraordinary remedy” – which is what he sought – Gerald had to establish a clear legal right to the relief requested, a clear legal duty on the part of the Industrial Commission to provide the relief, and the lack of an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law.

Thus, if Gerald demonstrated that the Commission abused its discretion when it concluded that he was ineligible for compensation, the type of writ he sought may be an available remedy.

In this context, “abuse of discretion has been repeatedly defined as a showing that the Commission’s decision was rendered without some evidence to support it.” So that’s what we have to look for – “some evidence.”

The purpose of temporary-total-disability compensation is to compensate an injured employee for lost earnings during a period of disability while an injury heals. If the injured employee – or claimant – leaves the workforce for reasons unrelated to the industrial injury, there is no loss of earnings due to the injury, and therefore the claimant is not eligible for temporary-total-disability compensation.

Whether a claimant voluntarily retired or abandoned the workforce after his injury is a question of fact for the Commission to determine. In previous cases, our court has described the question of abandonment as “primarily ... one of intent ... that may be inferred from words spoken, acts done, and other objective facts.”

Accordingly, the Commission must consider all relevant circumstances, including evidence of the claimant’s medical condition at the time of departure from the workforce, and any other evidence that would substantiate a connection between the injury and retirement.

When the court of appeals reviewed Gerald’s claim, it concluded that there was “some evidence” in the record to support the Commission’s decision that Gerald had voluntarily retired. The Commission relied on Rexam’s records, which stated that Gerald’s retirement was based on years of service, not disability. The Commission also had medical reports that Gerald had reached maximum medical improvement when he decided to retire.

The Commission pointed to Gerald’s receipt of Social Security disability benefits as an indication that he didn’t intend to return to employment. And other than Gerald’s own testimony that he had applied for a job as a Wal-Mart greeter, there was no evidence that Gerald had looked for other employment after he retired.

Gerald also maintained that in addition to having the burden to prove that he was temporarily and totally disabled, the court of appeals improperly placed an additional burden on him to produce evidence that he did not abandon the workforce.

But the court of appeals rejected that argument also. Gerald’s burden of proof was to demonstrate that he was medically entitled to the benefits and that he had remained in the workforce and sustained a loss of earnings. He didn’t produce evidence that his retirement was injury-induced, and he also did not produce credible evidence that he had made an attempt to find other employment after his retirement.

Instead, the record contained evidence that once Gerald learned that his temporary-total-disability compensation had been terminated, he chose to permanently retire from Rexam.

The Commission is exclusively responsible for evaluating the weight and credibility of the evidence. And it’s within the Commission’s discretion to rely on the evidence that Gerald had voluntarily retired from the workforce and was no longer eligible for temporary-total-disability compensation.

Consequently, by a six-to-zero vote, we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is State ex rel. Hoffman v. Rexam Beverage Can Company Co., 137 Ohio St.3d 129, 2013-Ohio-4538. Case No. 2012-1109. Decided October 16, 2013. Opinion Per Curiam.