The reason for this strange circumstance stemmed from an Ohio Supreme Court decision in 2003, Coolidge v. Riverdale Local School District (Ohio 2003), 100 Ohio St. 3d 141. Coolidge involved the discharge of a public school teacher who was on an extended leave of absence and was receiving temporary total disability benefits related to a workers? compensation claim. The Court held that it was contrary to Ohio public policy for a school district to fail to renew the teacher?s contract because of absenteeism (or inability to work) that was caused by a workplace injury for which she was still receiving workers? compensation benefits.
Although Coolidge involved an employee with an employment contract, the Court did not distinguish between an employment contract situation and an at-will employment situation. Thus, the Coolidge case was broadly interpreted to permit any employee to sue an employer for wrongful discharge in violation of Ohio public policy when the employee was discharged for non-retaliatory reasons (i.e., enforcement of a neutral attendance policy) while receiving workers? compensation benefits.
After Coolidge was decided, there was considerable uncertainty as to whether the Ohio Supreme Court created a new pubic policy exception to the employment at-will doctrine in Ohio. Therefore, the Coolidge decision essentially became a bar to termination of any employee who was on leave and receiving workers? compensation benefits. Due to the expansive interpretation of Coolidge by Ohio courts, employers have had to exercise extreme caution when considering the employment status of employees receiving workers? compensation benefits.
The recent Bickers decision, however, sheds new light on an employer?s ability to terminate an employee on workers? compensation leave. Shelly Bickers was injured in 1994 while working for Western & Southern Life Insurance Company. While on one of many workers? compensation leaves related to this injury, Ms. Bickers was terminated for absenteeism in accordance with the established attendance policy. Ms. Bickers was receiving workers? compensation benefits at the time of her termination, and as such, she filed a claim of wrongful discharge against her employer.
In Bickers, the Ohio Supreme Court revisited the Coolidge decision and clarified its application. Specifically, the Court ruled that an at-will employee who is terminated for non-retaliatory reasons while receiving workers? compensation benefits may not pursue a claim for wrongful discharge based on the public policy underlying the Ohio workers compensation system. The Court explained that a public policy claim did not exist for at-will employees who were terminated while receiving workers? compensation benefits. Rather, such employees were limited to filing claims solely for retaliatory discharge under the Ohio Workers? Compensation Act. Moreover, the Court significantly narrowed the Coolidge holding to apply only to teachers under collective bargaining agreements.
The Bickers decision is a favorable result for employers, and it affords employers greater freedom to terminate employees who are receiving workers? compensation benefits but are unable to return to work. However, the decision does not eliminate an employer?s potential liability for discharging employees who have filed workers? compensation claims.
Instead, Bickers clarifies that an employee who believes he or she was discharged in retaliation for filing a workers? compensation claim can only file a retaliatory discharge claim under the Ohio Workers? Compensation Act (the ?Act?). The Act imposes certain notice and filing requirements and limits the remedies available to a plaintiff whose retaliation claim is successful. The decision in Bickers is significant for employers because it should curb the flood of public policy wrongful discharge claims filed in the wake of Coolidge.
For more information, please contact Nicole J. Gray, Esq., at McDonald Hopkins LLC, 216.348.5418.
©2008 McDonald Hopkins LLC, All Right Reserved This client alert is designed to provide current information for our clients, friends and their advisers regarding important legal developments. The foregoing discussion is general information rather than specific legal advice. Because it is necessary to apply legal principles to specific facts, always consult your legal adviser before using this discussion as a basis for a specific action.