Workers’ Compensation benefits generally fall into one of two categories. Benefits are either for lost or reduced wages, referred to as “indemnity” benefits; or are for medical which include treatment, prescriptions, apparatus’s, mileage reimbursement among other things. This article is going to focus on indemnity benefits.
You may be able to return to work either at full duty or at a partial, light-duty capacity after suffering from a work-related accident depending on the severity of your injury. After returning to work, depending on how much you earn, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation indemnity benefits. The law allows you to collect compensation for lost time or reduced earnings if you can prove a causal relationship between your loss of earnings and your work-related injuries. The burden is on you, the injured worker, to establish this connection. There are generally two ways to show this causal relationship. You can demonstrate with medical evidence that you have work-related restrictions that preclude you from adequately performing your job duties. Or, you can show that you tried to find another job but that you were unsuccessful due to your disability. In addition to showing this causal relationship, you must be earning less than 80% of what you were earning at the time of the accident to be entitled to any partial disability, indemnity, benefits. So, obviously, if you cannot return to any post-injury work you would be earning 0 and would be under the 80% level of earnings. If you do return to some form of work, you cannot be earning more than 80% of what you were making at the time of the accident.
There are instances when your employer can suspend or avoid paying indemnity benefits altogether despite your disability. One of these circumstances is if you get fired from your job based on misconduct. (Fl. St. 440.15). This article is going to focus on termination from post-injury employment and its effects on your workers’ compensation benefits.
If your employer wants to avoid paying you based upon the misconduct defense, then it will need to raise this issue as an affirmative defense and bear the burden of proving this defense. What is meant by misconduct?
The law defines “misconduct” as:
(a) Conduct evincing such willful or wanton disregard of an employer’s interests as is found in deliberate violation or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect of the employee; or
(b) Carelessness or negligence of such a degree or recurrence as to manifest culpability, wrongful intent, or evil design, or to show an intentional and substantial disregard of an employer’s interests or of the employee’s duties and obligations to the employer.
Fl. St. 440.02(18). Let’s look at a few real-life situations to see how the Court has applied the “misconduct” defense.
In a recent case, an injured worker suffered multiple injuries after being hit by a door but was able to return to work in a limited capacity. The injured worker told her attorney that she wanted to punch her co-worker that was responsible for her injuries such that her attorney thought that she was a potential danger and informed the Judge about this. After taking testimony, it was learned that indeed the injured worker made comments about wanting to punch her co-worker, but never actually harmed or stated that she planned to hurt her co-worker. Regardless, her employer fired her. As a result of her termination from employment, she was cut off from workers’ compensation indemnity benefits under the law, Fl. St. 440.15, which provides that the employer no longer has to pay lost time benefits to an injured worker who was terminated for misconduct. The injured worker challenged her termination for misconduct arguing that her statements were really just bad thoughts and that she was just venting, and nothing more. The Court examined whether her termination amounted to “misconduct”. The Court concluded that this did not rise to the level of “misconduct”. The Court differentiated termination “for cause” from termination for “misconduct”. These are not the same thing. The Court found that her termination may have been for cause, but that her conduct was not intentional or deliberate and did not rise to the level of “misconduct” under the statute. Therefore, her workers’ compensation benefits were not suspended.
In another case, the claimant suffered a compensable low back injury after tripping and falling and was rendered partially disabled and able to return to work. She was later fired for misconduct after not following instructions on multiple occasions in violation of the employer’s policies, and her workers’ compensation indemnity benefits were cut off. The Court indicated that the definition of “misconduct” under the Workers’ Compensation Law is the same as that used under the Unemployment Law. The Court then examined a number of unemployment law cases and concluded that the injured worker’s conduct rose to the level of misconduct. The Court noted that a single violation of an employer’s policy may constitute misconduct if it is egregious enough, but generally, such would need to be repeat violations to meet the definition of misconduct. Specifically, the definition of misconduct requires conduct that is willfully, wantonly, or in substantial disregard of the employer’s interest; which would not result from just one isolated violation. The conduct must be such that the injured worker acted in deliberate and intentional disobedience.
It should be noted that the law in question, Fl. St. 440.15, only applies to injured workers who return to work post-injury. So, if you never return to work following the accident, then theoretically, the statute cutting off indemnity benefits would not apply to you.
Take the example where an injured worker’s employer had a drug policy in place stating it could terminate employment if a worker came to work while under the influence or was under the influence at any point. This worker was using drugs away from the workplace and did not report to work at any time while under the influence. In fact, this worker never returned to work after suffering a work-related injury due to his disability. The Judge recognized that the employer had the right to fire the worker due to cause, but that his conduct did not meet the statute’s definition of “misconduct” because there was no “post-injury” employment. Thus, the worker’s indemnity benefits could not be cut off under Fl. St. 440.15(4)(e).
Remember, what we have been discussing thus far is termination for misconduct which is not the same as termination for cause. If you are fired because you could no longer perform your duties, then this would be a termination for cause and NOT misconduct. Thus, your employer would not be able to suspend your indemnity benefits under this section of the law simply because you got fired for cause. Of course, as stated earlier, you still have the burden of showing a causal connection between your injuries and any related wage loss in order to be entitled to indemnity benefits.
As demonstrated in this article, if you return to work post-injury and then get terminated from employment, you may still be entitled to workers’ compensation indemnity benefits. An experienced Workers’ Compensation Attorney can help you navigate the system and ensure that you not only obtain the benefits that you are entitled to but help maximize your benefits. If you have suffered a work-related injury, contact us at the LaBovick Law Group to see what benefits you may be entitled to. We provide free consultations where we will review the facts of your case to determine the right course for you. Call us today at (561) 625-8400 for your free evaluation.