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A man who was injured while working for an aluminum plant in Ohio and was later given and the light-duty assignment that allegedly consisted of him sitting in a plant cafeteria all day doing nothing will see the issue of whether the new post was offered in “good faith” back in court following a divided Supreme Court of Ohio decision filed Thursday.
Alfredo Pacheco in 2012 suffered injuries to his ankle and foot while working for Aluminum Company of America, which accepted his claim, awarded him temporary total disability for 10 months, and subsequently offered him a light duty assignment in line with his prognosis that he could perform work that was sedentary, according to documents in The State Ex Rel. Pacheco v. Industrial Commission et al., filed in Columbus.
Mr. Pacheco accepted the offer and worked in the light-duty position for three weeks, claiming that “during that time, (the company) required him to sit in the cafeteria and gave him almost no work to do.” He then went to a new doctor, who completed a report stating that “Pacheco was not released to work but also stating work restrictions that were similar to those under which Pacheco had accepted the light-duty job — including the ability to sit for up to eight hours and to use a computer.”
Mr. Pacheco submitted a follow-up request for temporary total disability, which the company denied. He appealed to the state Workers’ Compensation Commission, which denied the request based on Mr. Pacheco’s “abandonment of the light-duty position.” The commission, threatened with an appeal filed in district court, withdrew the denial and held a new hearing, resulting in a subsequent denial “this time based on a lack of persuasive medical documentation that he could not perform the light-duty position at (the company) during the time period for which he sought TTD compensation,” according to documents.
Mr. Pacheco filed a new mandamus complaint in district court, which concluded that “some evidence in the record supported the commission's finding that the light-duty job was within Pacheco's medical restrictions.” But the court also concluded that the job stationing Pacheco “in the cafeteria with little work was objectively not offered in good faith,” documents state.
The court therefore issued a writ of mandamus ordering the commission to either grant Mr. Pacheco's request for disability compensation or hold a new hearing. The commission appealed that judgment, and Mr. Pacheco filed a cross-appeal. The company also filed its own appeal, which was assigned a separate case number. The state Supreme Court then consolidated the appeals, ruling that Mr. Pacheco could perform light duty but that the commission failed to address the issue of whether the job offered was meant in good faith.
The high court issued a limited writ ordering the commission to determine in the first instance whether the employer offered the job in good faith and to issue a new order.
Mr. Pacheco claimed “that by making him sit idly in public view, (the employer) was placing him on display as a warning to other employees.” The employer “countered that it gave Pacheco productive work to do and that it stationed him in the cafeteria because it was close to the parking lot and the restroom, in conformity with a medical restriction stating that Pacheco could walk no more than several hundred yards,” according to the court’s analysis of what needs to be addressed by the commission.
Three of the seven Supreme Court judges dissented in part, agreeing that Mr. Pacheco was medically capable of light duty but arguing that the case does not meet the legal bar on the question of good faith, that Mr. Pacheco’s refusal to work makes him ineligible for disability.
One dissenting judge wrote, “there is no logical distinction between a worker who stops going to work and receives a formal termination notice and a worker who simply stops performing a job that he is medically able to perform.”
The company and attorneys involved could not immediately be reached for comment.
What happens when employers aren't able to accommodate injured workers who have been cleared for light duty assignments? In the latest episode of Business Insurance In Focus, Assistant Managing Editor Aranya Tomseth finds out how alternative programs are helping some employers manage return-to-work challenges.