In a case of first impression, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court recently issued an opinion examining the standards applicable to a claimant’s behavior when the claimant is receiving workers’ compensation benefits and has filed for unemployment compensation.
By way of background, the claimant suffered a brain injury at work and received workers’ compensation benefits. Several months after her injury, her employer sent her for an IME. Although Claimant’s treating doctors had not released her to return to work, the IME physician did so with no restrictions. Upon receipt of the IME report, her employer offered her several jobs; however, her workers’ compensation attorney indicated that she was disputing the report. The employer subsequently filed a petition to terminate, modify or suspend her workers’ compensation benefits. During a deposition, Claimant stated that she believed she could return to a light duty job. Several weeks before her workers’ compensation claim ultimately settled, Claimant was terminated. She subsequently filed for unemployment compensation benefits, but was found ineligible due to willful misconduct for failing to make her employer aware she was able to return to work and failing to respond to the employer’s job offer. Claimant appealed, arguing that she did not fail to respond to a job offer, as the Employer never made one, and further, that her conduct did not amount to willful misconduct. In reversing the decision of the Unemployment Compensation Review Board, the Court applied Workers’ Compensation law and not UC law to analyze the Claimant’s behavior.
On the first issue, the Court found that no job offer had been made after Claimant’s deposition, wherein she indicated she could return to a light duty position. While the UCBR argued that Claimant failed to meet a reasonable expectation when she did not return to work immediately after her deposition, the Court disagreed for several reasons, opining that the IME doctor’s release was not relevant, that Claimant did in fact respond to earlier offers of employment, and that during said offers there was no indication about the nature (i.e., light duty or not) of the positions available.
The Court further found that the employer did not comply with its duty under the Workers’ Compensation Act when it failed to contact Claimant regarding light duty work after her deposition (wherein she opined that she was able to return to light duty work) and that Claimant had no duty to report to work immediately after the deposition. An employer must show that an employee violated some policy, work rule or reasonable expectation in order to establish willful misconduct. The Court opined that the Workers’ Compensation Act “governs the reasonable expectations of an employer with respect to an employee receiving workers’ compensation.” While the Act requires an employee receiving benefits to report wages within a specified time, it does not require an employee to report when he or she has recovered from the work injury. Rather, the Act imposes a duty on the employer to seek out such information. In this case, the Court found that there was no evidence that the employer sought out this information or gave Claimant the requisite amount of time to respond.
The Court further noted that if work is available, in line with any restrictions on a claimant, it must be offered. It is the employer’s burden to show that such work is actually available once it has information that a claimant can work in some capacity. Again, the Court found that there was no evidence that the employer ever offered light duty work or requested that Claimant return to work at all, and further found there was no reasonable expectation for Claimant to return to work or provide information to the employer which the employer already had. As such, the Court reversed the decision of the UCBR.
In a strongly worded dissent, the minority opined that the Court had “dramatically chang[ed] well-established precedent and impos[ed] upon employers newly created requirements.” The minority further opined that as the Claimant was seeking UC benefits, UC law controlled, and that a claimant who fails to act in a reasonable manner (i.e., to report to work once released to do so or at least communicate a reason for not returning) has engaged in willful misconduct.
Employers should carefully review the Court’s ruling and ensure that they understand the interplay between the Workers’ Compensation Act and the Unemployment Compensation Act. Employers should further ensure that they are complying with the standards and requirements set forth under the Workers’ Compensation Act.