In June 2011, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down an important and close decision – four to three – that expanded the legal remedies of workers terminated from their jobs in one very particular scenario.
In Ohio, the law says an employer can’t fire or otherwise take negative employment action against an employee because the worker filed a workers’ compensation claim for injury on the job. This statute is commonly referred to as the workers’ compensation anti-retaliation law.
DeWayne Sutton’s Termination
The plaintiff in Sutton v. Tomco Machining, Inc., suffered a similar wrong, but didn’t quite fall under the anti-retaliation law. In April 2008, machinist DeWayne Sutton hurt his back taking apart a saw on the job at parts manufacturer Tomco Machining in Dayton, Ohio. Sutton reported his injury to the company president and less than an hour later the president fired Sutton after two and one-half years on the job.
According to the court opinion, the president did not give Sutton a reason for his termination, but did say that it was not because of Sutton’s “work ethic or job performance” or because of any broken rule or policy.
Employment at Will
Under the employment-at-will doctrine that is the law in Ohio, most employees who do not have special employment contracts or arrangements may be let go by their employers at any time for any reason, or even for no reason. Lots of firings under the at-will doctrine may seem unfair, but they are usually entirely legal.
Wrongful Discharge in Violation of Public Policy
The Ohio Supreme Court created an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine in 1990: a legal cause of action for wrongful discharge (or other punitive employment action) in violation of public policy. A successful plaintiff under this doctrine must prove four things:
- Clarity: A clear public policy as shown in state or federal law, constitution, regulations or common law (as handed down by courts)
- Jeopardy: The negative employment action would put the policy in jeopardy
- Causation: The negative employment action “was motivated by conduct related to the public policy”
- Overriding justification: The employer had no “overriding legitimate business justification” for the negative employment action
The Court’s Analysis
The Ohio Supreme Court found the clarity and jeopardy elements present. It looked first at the anti-retaliation law and found that unfortunately Sutton was not literally covered by that law because he was fired in the time period between his work injury and the filing of his workers’ compensation claim. However, the court held that he could instead sue for wrongful discharge in violation of the public policy expressed in the anti-retaliation law.
The court felt that the legislature’s bar against retaliatory firing for filing for workers’ compensation sends a public policy message that applied just as strongly to Sutton’s situation. The opinion reasons that with no protection during this gap in time between injury and filing, to get out of paying the workers’ comp claim, every employer could just fire an injured worker immediately before he or she has a chance to file for workers’ compensation.
The court, however, said that the remedy for a suit under the public policy of the anti-retaliation statute for a termination in the gap period should be limited to those remedies allowed by the anti-retaliation statute, namely attorneys fees plus reinstatement with lost wages for such a discharge.
Get Legal Advice
If you are an Ohio employer needing to understand your responsibilities under the workers’ compensation anti-retaliation statute, consult an experienced business law attorney for the information you need. If you are a worker who has been fired or otherwise hurt after a work injury or following the assertion of your workers’ compensation rights, talk to a workers’ compensation lawyer as soon as possible to preserve your legal rights.