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.