Thursday, June 9, 2011

Ohio recognizes public policy tort for workers compensation retaliation in limited circumstances

Ohio has a specific statute against workers’ compensation retaliation—R.C. 4123.90. It prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee who files a claim, or institutes, pursues, or testifies in any proceeding under the workers’ compensation act.

In Bickers v. W. & S. Life Ins. Co. (2007), the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that an employee who is fired while receiving workers’ compensation benefits is limited to brining a retaliation claim under the statute, and cannot pursue a common law wrongful discharge cause of action. This distinction is significant, because the workers’ compensation retaliation statute has limited remedies—reinstatement, back pay, and reasonable attorneys fees. The remedies is a common law wrongful discharge claim, however, are unregulated, and include compensatory and punitive damages.

In Sutton v. Tomco Machining, Inc. (6/9/11) [pdf], the Ohio Supreme Court considered whether R.C. 4123.90 also precludes an injured employee who suffers retaliation before filing a workers’ compensation claim from filing a common law wrongful discharge claim.

The facts of the case are pretty remarkable. Within an hour of DeWayne Sutton’s report of a workplace back injury to Tomco’s president, and before he could file a workers’ compensation claim for the injury, the company fired him. The employer argued that Sutton did not have a remedy. It correctly argued that R.C. 4123.90 did not provide a remedy because he had not filed a workers’ compensation claim. It also argued that Bickers precluded the common law wrongful discharge claim.

The Court concluded that because Sutton did not have a remedy available under the statute, he could pursue his common law wrongful discharge claim:

We find that the General Assembly did not intend to leave a gap in protection during which time employers are permitted to retaliate against employees who might pursue workers’ compensation benefits…. The General Assembly certainly did not intend to create the footrace …, which would effectively authorize retaliatory employment action and render any purported protection under the antiretaliation provision wholly illusory. Therefore, it is not the public policy of Ohio to permit retaliatory employment action against injured employees in the time between injury and filing, instituting, or pursuing workers’ compensation claims.

The Court, however, did not permit Sutton to seek the full panoply of tort remedies. Instead, it balanced the limited remedies of the Workers’ Compensation Act against right of employees to be free from retaliation:

The compromise established by the General Assembly must govern the relief available to employees, like Sutton, who suffer retaliatory employment action after an injury and before they have filed, instituted, or pursued a workers’ compensation claim, just as it governs the relief for employees who suffer retaliatory employment action after they have filed, instituted, or pursued a workers’ compensation claim. Accordingly, we hold that Ohio’s public policy as established by the legislature is to limit remedies for retaliatory employment actions against injured employees to those listed in R.C. 4123.90.

This case strikes the right balance. Even the most ardent employer-side advocate would have a hard time arguing for a loophole that would preclude any remedy for an employee retaliated against. By limiting the remedies to those set forth in the statute, the Court is protecting the balance created by the workers’ compensation system into which employers are required to buy.

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