Workers’ Comp: Wrongful Termination, Fired After Making a Claim
Article by Matthew Sims. Matthew Sims is a Springfield, Missouri Workers’ Compensation Attorney and Springfield, Missouri Personal Injury Attorney at the Sims Law Firm.
Thanks to a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling, workers who are fired after making a claim for Workers’ Compensation benefits, now have a realistic chance of recovering damages. I say realistic, because, prior to Templemire v. W & M Welding, Inc. (April, 2014), an aggrieved employee was required to show that the exclusive cause for her termination was in fact making a claim for Workers’ Compensation benefits under Chapter 287 of the Missouri Revised Statutes.
Chapter 287.780 RSMo. provides “No employer or agent shall discharge or in any way discriminate against any employee for exercising any of his rights under this chapter. Any employee who has been discharged or discriminated against shall have a civil action for damages against his employer.” This language is nothing new, and has been part of the Section 287.870 since 1925. Missouri Courts first interpreted the statute to mean, “…that a cause of action lies only if an employee is discharged discriminatorily by reason of exercising his or her rights.” Mithchell v. St. Louis County, 575 S.W.2d 813 (Mo.App.E.D.1978). Note, the court used the language “only” leaving open room for discharges based in part at least, on reasons other than exercising his or her rights. Soon thereafter, the Courts again interpreted the meaning “…there must be a causal relationship between the exercise of the right by the employee and his discharge by his employer arising precisely from the employee’s exercise of his rights, and upon proof that the discharge was related to the employee’s exercise of his or her rights.” Davis v. Richmond Special Road Dist. 649 S.W.2s 252 (Mo.App.W.D.1983). Again, the Court chose to use the word “precisely” which continued to allow the employer to discharge the employee if there were other unrelated reasoning. It is easy to see how an employer would abuse the statutory interpretation. Ultimately, the Missouri Supreme Court weighed in on the interpretation of the Statue and provided the elements terminated worker must prove in order to show retaliatory termination:
- Plaintiff’s status as employee of defendant before injury;
- Plaintiff’s exercise of a right granted by Chapter 287;
- Employer’s discharge of or discrimination against plaintiff; and,
- An exclusive causal relationship between plaintiff’s actions and defendant’s actions.
Hansome v. Northwestern Cooperage Co. 679 S.W.2d 273 at 275 (Mo. Banc 1984).
As a result of the above interpretation by the Missouri Supreme Court, the law in Missouri has long been, an employer was not liable for retaliatory or discriminatory retaliation for discharging an employee after making a claim for benefits, unless it was the exclusive reason for the termination. In other words, the employer could essentially make up any reason and avoid liability.
In April, 2014, The Missouri Supreme Court handed down the decision in Tempelmire v. W & M Welding. The decision reasoned that nowhere in Section 287.780 does the statute require that the “exclusive” reason for termination be retaliatory for making a claim for benefits. The Court points out that the legislative intent of Section 287.780 was to prevent the evil of employers terminating, or discriminating against workers for claiming their benefits. Additionally, the Court provided that it must under Section 287.800, apply strict construction to the language contained in Section 287.780, and they must not presume anything that is not expressed in the statute. The Court’s decision overruled the previous decision in Hansome v. Northwestern Cooperage Co.
In overruling the decision in Hansome, the Court threw out the “exclusive causation” standard, replacing it with “contributing factor.” The Court provided several reasons why the contributing factor standard was more appropriate. First, the plain language of the statute, prohibit employers form discharging or in any way discrimination against an employee for exercising his or her rights under Chapter 287. Second, the Court determined that terminating a person for exercising their rights under Chapter 287 was reprehensible. The fact that an employee was terminated for other reasons along with the reason of exercising their rights under Chapter 287 makes the termination no less reprehensible. Third, using another standard, such as the “motivating factor” would continue to allow the employer to discriminate against or terminate employees, at least in part for exercising their rights under chapter 287. Forth, and finally, the Court reasoned that use of the “contributing factor” standard placed discrimination or termination of employees for exercising their rights under Chapter 287 in line with other employment discrimination law, such as discrimination or termination under the Missouri Human Rights Acts.
With the change in the Court’s position, comes what I referred to above as, a “realistic chance” for those terminated or discriminated against for exercising their rights under Chapter 287 to recover damages. It is now possible for a terminated or discriminated against employee to recover, back pay, front pay, lost opportunity, lost advancement, pre judgment interest, attorneys’ fees, and punitive damages.
If you have been terminated after filing a claim for Workers’ Compensation benefits you should contact a qualified Employment or Workers’ Compensation lawyer.
By Matthew Sims