April 2, 2014
A New Order

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Fred Cline was a truck driver for Abke Trucking, Inc. On August 27, 2008, while at work, he was injured. His subsequent experience with workers’ compensation claims became the subject of a case that we reviewed here – at the Supreme Court of Ohio

Cline’s workers’ compensation claim was allowed for contusion of the left hip and later for bursitis. He was placed on medical restrictions and assigned to modified duty offsite with the American Red Cross, where he was required to document his hours and send his weekly attendance record to Abke.

Cline’s physician released him to return to work on March 25, 2009, with no restrictions on what he could do. On that day, he underwent a medical examination in order to renew his commercial driver’s license and answered questions on the examination form. Under health history, Cline indicated “no” when asked whether he had diabetes or elevated blood sugar. He signed the form certifying that his answers were complete and true.

Two days later, Abke notified Cline in a letter that he was terminated. The letter stated: “It has come to our attention that you have been using a medication that would not allow you to operate a commercial vehicle.  According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, you cannot operate a commercial vehicle if you have diabetes currently requiring insulin for control.

“Records indicate that you are currently taking Lantus which is insulin for diabetes. Given this information you are no longer eligible to drive a truck for Abke Trucking Inc. In addition, concern of your knowingly reporting you worked on January 19 and February 16 while not actually working is a serious violation of falsifying a time card and is cause for immediate discharge on the first violation. Given this information you are considered terminated as of March 25, 2009.”

On July 1, 2009, Dr. David Ervin, Cline’s treating physician, certified that Cline was temporarily and totally disabled as a result of his industrial injury. The Bureau of Workers’ Compensation granted Cline temporary-total-disability (“TTD”) compensation beginning July 1, 2009. A district hearing officer for the Industrial Commission of Ohio – which handles such matters – affirmed the Bureau’s decision.

But in December 2009, a staff hearing officer for the Commission – the next step in the process – vacated that decision and denied TTD compensation. The hearing officer determined that Cline’s termination from Abke for violating written work rules was a voluntary abandonment of employment that barred TTD.

Cline filed an action with the court of appeals alleging that the Commission’s decision was not supported by the evidence and constituted an abuse of discretion. The court of appeals determined that Cline could not be ineligible for TTD for being an insulin-dependent diabetic, the medical condition that prevented him from returning to his former position of employment, and that the Commission had abused its discretion in finding that Cline had falsified two time cards.

The court thus concluded that the Commission had abused its discretion when it determined that Cline was ineligible for TTD based upon his termination of employment. After that, his case came before us.

A claimant who voluntarily leaves his former job for reasons unrelated to an injury cannot receive TTD compensation, because the injury no longer is the cause of the loss of wages.

In a case from 2012, we determined that when an employee is fired as a consequence of the employee’s misconduct, the discharge may nevertheless constitute a voluntary abandonment of employment “when the misconduct arises from the claimant’s violation of a written work rule that (1) clearly defined the prohibited conduct, (2) identified the misconduct as a dischargeable offense, and (3) was known or should have been known to the employee.”

The Commission’s December 2009 order summarily concluded, without direct reference to any evidence in the record, that Cline had been terminated as of March 25, 2009, based upon his violation of written work rules: Federal regulations prohibit a driver from operating a commercial vehicle if the driver has diabetes which requires insulin for control. The records indicated that Cline was taking Lantus, which is a form of insulin prescribed for diabetes.  Furthermore, Cline falsified his time cards for the dates of 1/19/2009 and 2/16/2009.

The hearing officer did not identify the evidence relied upon but merely concluded that as a result of the termination, Cline was barred from receiving TTD.

In a 1987 case, our court established that it is within the discretion of the Commission to decide the issue of voluntary abandonment, and absent an abuse of discretion, the court may not disturb the Commission’s order.

But, in 1997, we determined that the Commission must issue an order that contains sufficient detail of its reasoning and the evidence supporting it to indicate the grounds underlying its decision. Failure to do so constitutes an abuse of discretion.

Both parties acknowledge that the order may have failed to meet the minimum standards for Commission orders that were set forth in cases from 1983 and 1991. Cline maintains that the Commission’s order “is manifestly inadequate” because it “contains no explanation of the rationale for concluding that Cline falsified time cards, nor does it identify any evidence relied upon by the hearing officer as factual support for that conclusion.”

In Cline’s case, the court of appeals actually reached a split decision. The dissenting opinion stated: “The Commission failed to specifically state the evidence relied upon or explain the reasoning behind its decision that Cline had voluntarily abandoned his employment with Abke, thus making him ineligible for TTD compensation.”  Without more than that, the order violated our decisions in those cases from 1983 and 1991.

Therefore, by a six-to-zero vote, we reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and issued a limited writ returning the matter to the Industrial Commission to issue a new order that specifically states the evidence relied upon and briefly explains its reasoning.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is State ex rel. Cline v. Abke Trucking, Inc., 137 Ohio St.3d 557, 2013-Ohio-5159. Case No. 2012-1017. Decided November 27, 2013. Opinion Per Curiam.