Monday, April 18, 2011

Employers need to beware retaliation landmines

In Baker v. Windsor Republic Doors (6th Cir. 3/8/11), the plaintiff claimed that his employer retaliated against him in violation of the ADA, which in an of itself is not all that unique. What’s different about the case, however, is the nature of the claimed retaliation. Baker, a forklift operator, claimed that Windsor retaliated against him by requiring him to waive any future workers’ compensation claims as a condition of his post-surgical return to work.

Baker took a medical leave for the implantation of a pacemaker and defibrillator. Baker’s doctor ultimately cleared him to return to work with restrictions, including avoiding contact with any electrical current or magnetic fields, and wearing an electromagnetic frequency alarm. Windsor made the requested accommodations, but uncomfortable that it could guarantee Baker’s safety, additionally asked him to waive his rights to workers’ compensation benefits for any aggravation of his heart condition. When Baker refused to agree to the waiver, Windsor refused to continue his employment. Baker sued, and a jury awarded him $113,500 for disability discrimination and retaliation.

Specifically as the retaliation claim, the 6th Circuit concluded that the workers’ compensation waiver constituted an adverse action:

[A] rational jury could conclude that the waiver request was indeed an adverse action. Trial testimony is clear that if Baker chose not to waive rights that no individual without a heart condition was required to waive, he would not be allowed to return to work for the defendant. In fact, Lawrence Land, the company's director of human resources, engaged in the following colloquy with Baker’s lawyer:

   Q Is it fair to say that as of June 2006, you did not give [Baker] the option of returning to work with the EMF alarm but without signing away his workers' compensation benefits?

   A Sir, that's absolutely correct.

   Q All right. And to this day, has he ever been given the option of returning to work with the EMF alarm but without signing away his workers' compensation benefits? …

   A Sir, I've not had any communication, so that would be correct.

Being forced to choose between forfeiting certain statutorily guaranteed rights or remaining on indefinite, unpaid leave-of-absence is indeed a dilemma that a rational finder-of-fact could conclude was adverse.

Employee medical leaves and returns to work confound employers. In this case, the employer tried to do everything right to protect both the employee and itself, but nevertheless exploded a retaliation landmine by asking for the waiver. The standard for what constitutes retaliation is so broad—any materially adverse action that might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination—that something even as innocuous as asking for workers’ compensation waivers can qualify. Businesses not well versed in these issues (and even most that are) would be well served by seeking legal counsel in connection with employee leaves and returns to work to avoid making similar mistakes.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or