Crane Operator with PTSD Denied TTD Benefits After Termination

Holocker v. Illinois Workers' Compensation Comm'n, 2017 IL App (3d) 160363WC

Overhead Crane

The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed a decision of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission denying temporary total disability (TTD) benefits to a crane operator with PTSD who had been terminated before he reaching maximum medical improvement (MMI) in Holocker v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2017 IL App (3d) 160363WC Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.

The claimant was a “transportation operator” at a manufacturing facility in Peoria, Illinois who was injured while operating an overhead crane:

On September 11, 2012, the claimant was operating the crane, placing together heavy steel sections for an oversized mining truck. Each of the steel sections weighed several tons, and they were secured by a chainmail strap. After placing a steel section on the mining truck, the claimant was retracting the loosened chainmail strap when it got stuck. As the claimant looked up at the crane to identify the problem, the chainmail strap snapped loose and hit the claimant, striking him in the face and chest. The blow knocked him backwards, knocked out four of his teeth (including three of his upper front teeth and one lower tooth), loosened other teeth, and caused multiple facial fractures and chest contusions.

Holocker v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2017 IL App (3d) 160363WC Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.

While continuing to treat his work-related injuries, the claimant returned to work but was uncomfortable working with the crane. His employer accommodated his request to not be assigned crane duties and he primarily operated a fork truck.

At one point, however, the claimant was required to operate the crane and he suffered a panic attack requiring immediate medical attention. He was subsequently diagnosed with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), prescribed anti-anxiety medication, and work restrictions to not operate the crane. He also continued treating with a dentist, but otherwise, he was cleared for full duty work and his employer continued to accommodate his work restrictions.

During this time, the claimant contracted an illness following a vacation. He called in sick the first day but did not subsequently call in for the following three days. He was terminated under his collective bargaining agreement (CBA) for three consecutive days of “no call, no show.”

Following his termination, the claimant was actively seeking but unable to secure employment.

Following an arbitration hearing, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (IWCC) denied temporary total disability (TTD) benefits for the period following his termination. The claimant’s appeal was eventually heard by the Illinois Appellate Court.

Temporary Total Disability (TTD) Benefits After Termination of Employment

Injured workers are entitled to temporary total disability (TTD) benefits when they are temporarily totally incapacitated from working by their work-related injury. 820 ILCS 305/8(b) Illinois General Assembly | IWCC PDF.

As cited by the Appellate Court in Holocker:

“An employee is temporarily totally incapacitated from the time an injury incapacitates him from work until such time as he is as far recovered or restored as the permanent character of
injury will permit.” Archer Daniels Midland Co. v. Industrial Commission, 138 Ill. 2d 107 (1990) Google Scholar.

“To be entitled to TTD benefits, it is the claimant’s burden to prove not only that he did not work but also that he was unable to work.” Shafer v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2011 IL App (4th) 100505WC Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.

“A TTD award is proper when the claimant cannot perform any services except those for which no reasonably stable labor market exists.” Archer Daniels Midland Co. v. Industrial Commission, 138 Ill. 2d 107 (1990) Google Scholar.

“The fundamental purpose of the Act is to provide injured workers with financial protection until they can return to the work force.” Interstate Scaffolding, Inc. v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 236 Ill. 2d 132 (2010) Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.

“Therefore, when determining whether an employee is entitled to TTD benefits, the test is whether the employee remains temporarily totally disabled as a result of a work-related injury and whether the employee is capable of returning to the work force.” Interstate Scaffolding, Inc. v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 236 Ill. 2d 132 (2010) Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.

The claimant in this case relied upon Interstate Scaffolding, where the Illinois Supreme Court considered whether TTD benefits could be terminated before the claimant had reached maximum medical improvement if they were terminated for conduct unrelated to the injury. The Supreme Court found only three instances where TTD benefits could be terminated or suspended:

  • the employee refuses to submit to medical, surgical, or hospital treatment essential to their recovery;
  • the employee fails to cooperate in good faith with rehabilitation efforts; or
  • the employee refused work falling within the physical restrictions prescribed by his doctor.

Interstate Scaffolding, Inc. v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 236 Ill. 2d 132 (2010) Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.

In this case, the Appellate Court agreed with the Commission that the claimant was not entitled to TTD benefits following his termination. The Court denied the claimant’s contention that Interstate Scaffolding and Matuszczak v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2014 IL App (2d) 130532WC Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF, entitled an injured worker to TTD benefits prior to reaching maximum medical improvement as a matter of law:

In each of those cases, it was undisputed that, at the time of termination, the claimant’s condition had not stabilized, that the claimant was unable to perform the job he had been performing for the employer prior to the work accident, and that when the claimant returned to work after the accident, it was in a light duty capacity.

Thus, in each case, it was undisputed that the claimant’s work injury had diminished his ability to work, thereby entitling him to collect TTD benefits at the time of his termination. The only question was whether the misconduct that led to the claimant’s termination in each case (writing religious graffiti in the employer’s store room in Interstate Scaffolding, and stealing cigarettes in Matuszczak) justified the termination of TTD benefits.

Here, by contrast, the claimant was working full time and full duty in his original job classification prior to his termination, and the employer’s vocational expert testified that the claimant’s work-related injuries did not affect his employability in the labor market.

Holocker v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2017 IL App (3d) 160363WC Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.

The Court noted that even though the claimant had not reached maximum medical improvement,

  • the claimant had been released to work fully duty with only one work restriction, i.e., that he not operate a crane;
  • the claimant continued to work full duty as a “transportation operator” within his original job classification without being required to operate a crane; and
  • it was not necessary for the employer to either modify an existing job or create a “light duty” job to accommodate the claimant’s work restrictions.

The Appellate Court also noted that the employer had testified that the claimant would have continued to have been accommodated at work if he had not been terminated. A vocational rehabilitation expert had also testified that “the claimant’s restriction of no crane operation did not preclude the claimant from reentering the work force.”

Accordingly, the Court found that the Commission’s denial of TTD benefits following termination was not against the manifest weight of the evidence and the Commission’s decision was affirmed.

This article does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact an attorney directly.