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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Workers' comp retaliation case shows importance of careful documentation

If you don't want it read by your spouse, seen by your boss, considered by a jury, or splashed on the front page of the newspaper, do not write it down or send it in an email.

Cunningham v. Steubenville Orothopedics & Sports Medicine, Inc., decided this week by Ohio's 7th Appellate District, illustrates the pitfalls that await companies that terminate employees in the midst of a workers' comp leave. It also shows that managers and supervisors must be vigilant in what they put in writing.

Marianne Cunningham was an x-ray technician for Steubenville Orthopedics. She injured her back at work and took a six-week leave of absence after filing a workers' comp claim for her injury. After informing Steubenville Orthopedics that she would be able to return to work the following week, she was laid off. Among the evidence that the court relied upon in reversing the trial court's dismissal of the retaliation claim was certain notes kept by her boss, Dr. Amin, in his desk:

  • Notes that specifically mentioned a back injury Cunningham had suffered at a prior job.
  • Dr. Amin gave excessive absenteeism as the reason for Cunningham's termination. His notes, however, documented that Cunningham was only absent 6 times in the 30 months prior to her injury, while the employee who replace her during her workers' comp leave missed 5 to 10 days of work during a shorter prior of time and was not terminated.

I've often written about the importance of documentation in employment cases. The Cunningham case illustrates that what you don't document is often as important as what you do document. Steubenville Orthopedics's case was sunk because Dr. Amin did not carefully vet his thoughts before committing them to paper. His notes gave the court the evidence it needed to find that a question of fact existed on the issue of Dr. Amin's motivation for the termination. Dr. Amin will now have to come up with some non-retaliatory explanation for his notes that passes the red-face test in front of a jury, an unenviable position.