Friday, August 24, 2007

Ohio Supreme Court may be asked to clarify Coolidge

In addition to providing a good summary of the history of the public policy wrongful discharge tort in Ohio, Klopfenstein v. NK Parts Industries, Inc. also sets the stage for a potential battle in the Ohio Supreme Court over the proper statute of limitations for a claim under Coolidge v. Riverdale Local School Dist. Coolidge held that an employer cannot discharge an employee who is receiving temporary total disability workers' compensation benefits solely on the basis of absenteeism or inability to work, when the absence or inability to work is directly related to an allowed condition. The Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals, in Brooks v. Qualchoice, held that Coolidge does not create a new public policy exception to the employment at-will doctrine, but instead illustrates conduct that is retaliatory under R.C. 4123.90 (the workers' comp anti-retaliation provision). In Klopfenstein, the Third District Court of Appeals disagreed, holding, "Coolidge creates an independent public policy exception to the employment at-will doctrine." These divergent holding have significant implications, because the two claims have vastly different statutes of limitations. An aggrieved employee has 4 years to file a public policy wrongful discharge claim, as compared to 180 days for a retaliation claim pursuant to R.C. 4123.90. The workers' comp retaliation statute also has strict notice requirements that a claimant must meet as a prerequisite to bringing suit, in addition to more restrictive damages.

Klopfenstein will not be the last word on this issue. Whether in an appeal from that case, or some future case, the Ohio Supreme Court will be called upon to clarify its Coolidge holding and definitively state the proper statute of limitations. In anticipation of that future battle, let me suggest that Klopfenstein was wrongly decided. R.C. 4123.90 states: "No employer shall discharge ... any employee because the employee filed a claim ... under the workers’ compensation act for an injury ... which occurred in the course of and arising out of his employment with that employer." If an employee is terminated because of workers' comp-related absences, that employee is being terminated because of the claim. Thus, the termination falls squarely within the coverage of R.C. 4123.90. It is the job of the legislature, and not the courts, to expand the statute of limitations for Coolidge claims if it sees fit to do so.

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