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Fired worker owed comp benefits: Illinois high court

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill.—An employer must continue paying workers compensation benefits to an injured worker terminated for misconduct unrelated to the injury, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Friday in a closely followed case.

The employer's obligation to pay temporary total disability benefits continues until the employee's medical condition stabilizes and he reaches maximum medical improvement, the court said in Interstate Scaffolding Inc. vs. The Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission.

Union carpenter Jeff Urban suffered work-related head, neck and back injuries in 2003. Later, in 2005, after returning to work on light-duty assignment, Mr. Urban “engaged in a brief heated argument” with another employee and was subsequently fired for defacing company property with religious slogans.

When Interstate terminated Mr. Urban, the firm also refused to pay his TTD benefits. Additionally, in July 2005, a workers comp arbitrator found Mr. Urban was not entitled to TTD benefits subsequent to his termination.

But the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission modified the arbitrator's ruling, finding that Mr. Urban was entitled to TTD benefits of $1,004.41 per week.

Interstate appealed, and a circuit court confirmed the commission's decision. But an appeals court reversed, and Mr. Urban appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Illinois AFL-CIO, the Illinois Assn. of Defense Trial Counsel and the Illinois Self-Insurers Assn. all filed amicus briefs in the case.

Mr. Urban's side argued that a benefits award should be determined by whether the claimant's injury has stabilized, not by a dismissal.

Interstate argued that an employer may cease paying TTD benefits “if the injured employee commits a volitional act of misconduct that serves as justification for his termination,” the court's opinion shows.

But the Supreme Court disagreed with the employer. It said Illinois law allows the discharging of at-will employees for “any reason or no reason,” but whether an employee has been discharged for a valid cause or violation of public policy “are matters foreign to workers compensation cases.”

It reversed the appeals court and reinstated the award provided to Mr. Urban by the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission.