Creveling v. Lakepark Industries, Inc., 2021-Ohio-764
The Sixth Appellate District Court of Appeals has rendered a decision denying an employee’s claims of workers’ compensation retaliation and disability discrimination, among some other related claims.
The employee at issue was a tool and die maker. He was injured while using a machine that had rotating parts which caught the glove he was wearing and mangled his right hand, resulting in an amputation of his middle and ring finger. The Employer contacted OSHA to begin an investigation and filed a workers’ compensation claim on the employee’s behalf. The employee was eventually released to full duty by his doctor and the employer reinstated him as a tool and die maker.
Employees were trained extensively not to use gloves while using rotating equipment and the employer investigated the employee’s conduct in this regard and imposed a three-day suspension without pay. The employee admitted that he violated the policy and also executed an employee corrective action warning him that any further violations would result in his dismissal. The first day back from the suspension, the employee was witnessed wearing gloves while operating a rotating machine. The employee was reported to management and was terminated for violating the policy and the employee corrective action. The employee conceded that he had violated the corrective action.
The employee sued the employer for workers’ compensation and disability discrimination as well as wrongful termination, an intentional tort related to maintenance of the equipment, and loss of consortium on behalf of his wife.
Ohio law provides that “no employer shall discharge, demote, reassign, or take any punitive action against any employee because the employee filed a claim or instituted, pursued or testified in any proceedings under the workers’ compensation act for an injury or occupational disease which occurred in the course of and arising out of his employment with that employer.”
Workers’ compensation retaliation, like other discrimination and retaliation claims are subject to a burden-shifting analysis by the Court. The employee bears the burden to establish a “prima facie” case by showing that (1) the employee filed a workers’ compensation claim, or instituted, pursued, or testified in a workers’ compensation proceeding; (2) the employer discharged, demoted, reassigned, or took punitive action against the employer; and (3) a causal link exists between the employee’s filing or pursuit of a workers’ compensation claim and the adverse action by the employer.
If the employee can establish a prima facie case, the employer must show a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action. If the employer meets this burden, it goes back to the employee to establish that the reasons provided by the employer are merely a pretext. To do so, the employee must be able to shoe that the reasons given by the employer (1) had no basis in fact; (2) did not actually motivate the discharge; or (3) was insufficient to motivate the discharge.
The Court rejected the employee’s argument that because he was fired within 7 days of returning to work, it was sufficient to establish retaliatory motive. The Court reasoned that the firing and the employer’s knowledge of the claim were not sufficiently close enough in time to establish that proximity alone constituted evidence of retaliatory intent. Moreover, the Court found that the act of returning to work is not protected activity.
The Court also rejected evidence that the employer had a hostile attitude towards the employee based on a couple off-color remarks that were made upon his return such as “I guess you are left-handed now.” Such isolated comments, however, out of context, and in the absence of other evidence, are insufficient to establish a causal link between termination and the filing of a workers’ compensation claim.
The Court also rejected the employee’s argument that because the employer had failed to discipline other employees prior to his injury for wearing gloves, that its action to do so after the injury is evidence of a retaliatory motive. The Court found that the employee himself had not been declined for doing so prior to his injury and that he was unequivocally prohibited from doing so after his injury, before he was terminated for once again violating the policy.
The Court denied the employee’s disability discrimination law, which was made on similar factual allegations as the retaliation claim. However, here, the Court found that the employee was unable to establish a prima facie case of discrimination because he did not have a disability due to his two fingers being amputated. The Court found that the employee did not establish that the amputation caused him a substantial limitation of a major life activity. The Court recognized that he had some difficulty in adjusting to writing and other tasks with his right hand after the amputation, but he was still able to perform his work as a tool and die maker and could not establish that he was substantially limited in the performance of any major life tasks as compared to most people in the general population.
The Court also found that the employee could not have been regarded as having a disability by the employer because the employee lobbied to return to, and succeeded in securing, his former position of employment. Finally, the Court held that even if the employee could establish that he was disabled, there was insufficient evidence to find that he was terminated on account of his disability.
What this means for your District:
It is possible to terminate an employee for acts which lead to a workers’ compensation claim. A termination does not end the claim itself, just the employment relationship. Termination should be supported by an articulable violation of policy or directive or you may risk losing the burden shifting analysis. Here, the employer did not have a perfect set of facts because there was a history of non-enforcement of the policy until after the injury and there were some snide remarks made to the employee about his injuries. However, because the employer provided training, complied with its legal requirements, and kept the discipline focused on the employee’s violation of the policy and the corrective action, those little factual hiccups were not sufficient to establish a retaliatory or discriminatory motive behind the discipline action.
The Ohio Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Appellate District recently addressed a dispute between the Portage County Educators Association for Developmental Disabilities-Unit B, OEA/NEA and the Portage County Board of Developmental Disabilities. During a labor dispute, members of the union picketed on sidewalks outside the private residences of six Board members and outside the employer of one Board member. The State Employment Relations Board (SERB) determined that was an unfair labor practice based on language in R.C. 4117.11(B)(7), which makes picketing related to a labor relations dispute at the residence or place of private employment of any public official an unfair labor practice.
The union argued that the statute was an unconstitutional restriction on speech because the picketing in question took place on public sidewalks and streets. Those are quintessential public forums where speech enjoys a great deal of protection.
The court of appeals needed to first determine if the unfair labor practice statute was “content-based” or “content-neutral.” Content-neutral restrictions enjoy intermediate scrutiny and are presumed valid. Content-based restrictions are subject to strict scrutiny review and are presumed invalid. In this case, the court found that the statutory restriction was content-based because it prohibited picketing in certain locations only when that picketing was related to a labor relations dispute.
Given the determination that the statute was a content-based restriction on speech, the presumption of unconstitutionality could only be overcome by a showing that the regulation is (a) necessary to serve a compelling state interest; and (b) narrowly tailored to achieve that interest by the least restrictive means. Ultimately, the court found that SERB failed to show that the statute served a compelling state interest or that it was narrowly tailored. As a result, the court held that the statutory language was unconstitutional, and the union did not commit an unfair labor practice.
What this means for your District?
Picketing outside the homes or places of employment of school board members is permissible in certain counties in Ohio. The Eleventh Appellate District has jurisdiction over Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake, Portage and Trumbull Counties. This decision is binding in those counties. The Eighth Appellate District, which serves Cuyahoga County, previously reached the same conclusion in 1998. At least in those counties, an unfair labor practice will not be found if union members picket on public streets or sidewalks in front of board of education members’ homes or places of employment.
The Seventh Appellate District reached the opposite conclusion in 2016. Given the conflict among these courts, it is not clear throughout Ohio whether it is an unfair labor practice to picket outside the homes or places of employment of public officials. It is possible that this decision will be appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court where a definitive answer can be had. We will certainly update our clients if this case is appealed and decided by the Ohio Supreme Court.
In somewhat of a novelty decision, the Fifth District Court of Appeals of Ohio has upheld a trial court decision affirming the denial of unemployment benefits to 51 non-teaching employees who went on strike after OAPSE and the Board of Education were unable to reach an agreement on a successor contract.
In Ohio, employees are entitled to unemployment benefits in cases of a lockout. However, employees engaged in a labor dispute during which they can continue working while negotiations proceed are not eligible for benefits. Here, the Unemployment Commission found that the employees were engaged in a labor dispute, other than a lockout when they applied for benefits and were therefore not eligible.
The Ohio Supreme Court has defined a lockout as a “cessation of the furnishing of work to employees or a withholding of work from them in an effort to get for the employer more desirable terms.” A lockout can be actual or constructive. A constructive lockout occurs when “the conditions of further employment announced by the employer are such that the employees could not reasonably be expected to accept them and the terms manifest a purpose on the part of the employer to coerce his employees into accepting them or some other terms.”
In reconciling these disputes, the Unemployment Commission will analyze whether the employer will allow employees to continue working under the status quo of the expiring agreement while negotiations continue and whether the employees agree to continue working. It boils down to whether management or the union changed the status quo.
The court found that the record established that the Board did not withhold work in an effort to gain a bargaining advantage. The applicable CBA expired in July of 2017. The parties began negotiating in April of 2017 and the Board permitted work to continue under the preexisting agreement all the way into March of 2019 when the strike commenced. The Court further found that the Board had made a last, best, and final offer to the union but did not implement it or threaten to implement it. Therefore, the Court found that it was not the employer who had changed the status quo. The union on the other hand, did not act reasonably under the circumstances because it could have pulled its strike notice, continued to negotiate and continued to work while doing so, and then it could have ultimately refiled the strike notice if need be. Because it was the union that changed the status quo, and doing so was unreasonable under the circumstances, there was credible evidence for the Unemployment Commission to find that the employees were ineligible for benefits because they were not subjected to a lockout.
Ohio Assn. of Pub. School Emps. v. Unemp. Comp. Rev. Comm., 2020-Ohio-4028
The United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recently ruled in favor of a school district when an employee brought disability discrimination and retaliation claims after he was terminated for working for the local police department while being out on sick leave. Schwendeman v. Marietta City Schools, S.D. Ohio No. 2:18-CV-588, 2020 WL 519626 (Jan. 31, 2020).
The Plaintiff in this case was a bus driver employed by the Defendant school district, who also worked as a noon duty supervisor throughout the school day. In August of 2016, the Employee was required to have surgery on his foot. Following surgery, the Employee requested sick leave in order to recover. The Employee’s sick leave request was granted and the Employee returned to work on October 27, 2016.
When the Employee returned to work, the District set up a meeting because an employee’s wife had seen the Employee walking around in a Belpre Police Department uniform while out on sick leave. The District called the Chief of Police and discovered that the Employee was a volunteer for the police department, hired through a local subcontracting company. The Employee acknowledged that he was volunteering with the police department, but was not specific as to what days he was working and whether or not he was getting paid. After holding two subsequent meetings, the District was unable to determine which days the Employee was working with the police department or whether he was receiving compensation. Shortly thereafter, the Employee sent the District an email asking about the status of the investigation. The District replied stating the investigation was closed because of their inability to confirm whether the Employee was paid by the police department or by their subcontractor or the exact dates in which the Employee was working while out on leave.
Unsatisfied with the District’s response, the Employee filed Charges of Discrimination against the District with the EEOC and OCRC for the events that transpired throughout the investigation. The Employee’s claims were denied along with his appeals. Shortly after the discrimination charges were filed, the District reopened the investigation in order to defend the allegations stated within the charge. At that time, the District received records from the police department indicating that the Employee had been paid for working six days for four hours a day during the time he was on sick leave.
Upon learning this information, the District sent the Employee a Notice of Suspension and a Notice of Proposed Discharge for working with the police department during his sick leave. The grounds for termination included violation of O.R.C. § 2921.13 “falsification for the purpose of obtaining governmental benefits”, and O.R.C. § 3319.141 “falsification of an application for sick leave from public school employment.” The notices also stated that the Employee was being disciplined for his dishonesty during the school’s investigation. The District ultimately terminated the Employee’s employment for the reasons stated above.
The Employee then filed Charges of Retaliation against the District with the EEOC and OCRC. Again, these charges and the appeals thereof were ultimately denied. The Employee then filed a grievance in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement. The grievance was ultimately withdrawn in order for the Employee to seek legal help. This suit followed.
The Employee brought an action alleging disability discrimination, FMLA retaliation, Retaliation, and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.
Disability Discrimination under the ADA and Ohio Law
The Court found that the Employee had established a prima facie case of disability discrimination and considered the Employee as “disabled” considering the fact that the Employee had foot surgery and was impaired for three weeks while recovering.
However, the Court agreed that the District had legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for their employment action: falsification of sick leave, falsification of benefits, and dishonesty were legitimate reasons for termination. Further, the Court found that the District had an “honest belief” in the non-discriminatory reason it made in its employment decision and therefore the Employee’s claims were unsupportable. The key inquiry in this regard is to determine whether the employer made a reasonably informed decision before taking action. (Michael v. Caterpillar Fin. Servs. Corp., 496 F.3d 584, 598-99 (6th Cir. 2007).) In this case, the District reopened their investigation into the Employee after receiving charges of discrimination on an honest belief and in pursuit of new information: that the Employee worked with the Belpre PD on six days while on sick leave and had received payment from the subcontractor as a result of working with the Belpre PD while on leave. Upon learning this information, the District sent notices of termination based on these grounds.
The Court further shut down the Employee’s argument that he did not mislead the District nor did he falsify any documentation regarding his surgery or his need for sick leave. The Court determined that a reasonable jury could not doubt the District’s explanation that they terminated him for falsifying sick leave. The District terminated the Employee because they believed he was dishonest and falsified his sick leave. Additionally, the Court noted that even if the District was mistaken in believing that the Employee had been dishonest of falsified leave, such a mistake is not a sufficient reason to doubt the District’s honest belief. (Clay v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 501 F.3d at 713-15.) Moreover, the Employee’s assertion that the District wrongly assumed he could perform his duties because he was working during sick leave is insufficient to cast doubt on the District’s honest belief. Furthermore, the Employee also failed to establish any evidence that would establish discrimination as the real reason for the District’s employment decision. Thus, summary judgment on the Employee’s ADA and Ohio law discrimination claims were appropriate.
Retaliation Under the ADA
The Employee also brought retaliation claims under the ADA. However, the Court found that there was not temporal proximity between the Employee’s protected activity (filing charges with the EEOC and OCRC) and the adverse employment action (termination). When there is some time lapse between the activity and the adverse employment action, the Employee must couple that with some other evidence of retaliatory conduct in order to show causation. (Little v. BP Expl. & Oil Co., 265 F.3d 357, 365 (6th Cir. 2001).) In this case, the Employee was terminated three months after he filed Discrimination Charges with the EEOC and OCRC. Thus, he must point to some other evidence of retaliatory conduct in order to show causation. The Employee attempted to show this retaliatory conduct by the fact that the District reopened the investigation into the Employee because he filed the Discrimination Charges. However, the Court had already previously determined the District properly reopened the investigation in order to respond to the allegations therein and not as a general response to the charges being filed. Thus, the Court ultimately concluded that the Employee failed to establish a causal connection between his protected activity and his termination. Therefore, his ADA retaliation claim failed.
Ultimately, all of the Employee’s claims failed and were dismissed. This case is support for school districts taking action based on an employee’s dishonest actions while out on leave, even when such action appears in close proximate time to certain protected actions of an employee (e.g. filing charges of discrimination with EEOC and/or OCRC). If a district learns new information it is not prohibited from acting on the new information even though an employee may have sought other legal avenues.