In a retreat from prior precedent, the Ohio Supreme Court recently ruled that employees who are terminated as a result of filing for and receiving workers’ compensation benefits may not pursue public policy-based wrongful discharge claims. See Bickers v. W. & S. Life Ins. Co., ___ Ohio St.3d ___, 2007-Ohio-6751. In so holding, the Supreme Court expressly limited the scope of its previous (and controversial) decision in Coolidge v. Riverdale Local Sch. Dist., 100 Ohio St.3d 141, 2003-Ohio-5357. As set forth below, the Bickers decision is a significant victory for employers across the state of Ohio inasmuch as they are now no longer required to hold open jobs of employees who are on a leave of absence due to a work-related injury.
In Coolidge, the plaintiff (Cheryl Coolidge), a school teacher, was injured on the job and was subsequently forced to take an extended leave of absence as a result of her injuries. Throughout her entire leave of absence, Coolidge had been receiving temporary total disability (TTD) benefits awarded by the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation under R.C. 4123.56. After more than a year had passed following her injury, however, the defendant school board terminated Coolidge pursuant to its policy prohibiting leaves of absence that exceeded one school year for purposes of restoration of health.
Coolidge appealed the board’s decision to the Hancock County Court of Common Pleas, which found in her favor and reversed the board’s decision. On appeal, however, the Third District Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court and reinstated the board’s decision that terminated Coolidge. Consequently, the Ohio Supreme Court granted a discretionary appeal to address the following question: “whether [the] public policy embodied in the Workers’ Compensation Act protects an employee who is receiving TTD compensation from being discharged solely because of the disabling effects of the allowed injury, that is, absenteeism and inability to work.”
In reaching its answer, the Supreme Court first noted that the public policy prohibiting employers from wrongfully retaliating against their employees is expressly embodied in the Ohio Workers’ Compensation Act at R.C. 4123.90. The Court then recognized, however, that it had never explicitly decided whether discharges for absenteeism caused by allowed workers’ compensation injuries are violative of this public policy absent a retaliatory motive, which was precisely the scenario under which Coolidge was terminated. Therefore, the Court engaged in a thorough and thoughtful review of the then-existing authorities in Ohio on this issue, as well as the decisions from several sister jurisdictions.
Upon concluding its analysis, the Supreme Court adopted the minority view of jurisdictions. Said the Court, “we agree with the minority of courts that employees who are temporarily and totally disabled as a result of their work-related injuries have a right not only to the compensation provided in the act, but also to whatever period of absence from work is deemed medically necessary to complete their recovery or stabilize their injuries.” Thus, with regard to Coolidge’s termination while on an authorized leave of absence and receiving TTD, the Court reversed the Third District’s decision and held that “an employee who is receiving TTD compensation pursuant to R.C. 4123.56 may not be discharged solely on the basis of absenteeism or inability work, when the absence or inability to work is directly-related to an allowed condition.”
After the Coolidge decision was handed down in 2003, employees claiming to be the victims of workers’ compensation retaliation began filing two types of claim against their employers: (1) the well-recognized statutory claim pursuant to R.C. 4123.90; and (2) the newly-created common-law Coolidge claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The impact of this “new” common-law claim enabled plaintiffs to recover compensatory damages, front pay, and punitive damages, on top of reinstatement, backpay, and attorney’s fees available under the statutory claim.
Fortunately for employers, the opening of this floodgate was short-lived. Indeed, as these new common-law public policy claims found there way to the appellate courts, it soon became apparent that there was a split of authority as to howCoolidge was to be interpreted. See, e.g.,Klopfenstein v. NK Parts Indus., Inc., 171 Ohio App.3d 286, 2007-Ohio1916 (Holding that Coolidge created a separate claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy). But see,Brooks v. Qualchoice, Inc., 8th Dist. No. 85692, 2005-Ohio-5316 (Holding that “the Coolidge court did not create a new cause of action but, rather, expanded the type of action that constitutes retaliation under R.C. 4123.90 to include termination for absenteeism while on TTD”). Enter the Bickers case, which called upon the Supreme Court to revisitCoolidge and clarify the split.
In Bickers, the plaintiff (Shelley Bickers) was injured on the job and filed a workers compensation claim. Her injuries resulted in periods of incapacity, and she was awarded TTD. While on TTD, however, her employment was terminated. For reasons unknown, Bickers did not follow the procedures for asserting a retaliation claim under R.C. 4123.90 that require service of a letter on the employer within 90 days of termination, as well as the filing of suit within 180 days of termination. Therefore, she was unable to pursue the statutory workers’ compensation claim identified above. Instead, Bickers filed a Coolidge claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, which carried a longer statute of limitations and did not demand the procedural requirements of the statutory claim referenced above.
At the trial court level, Bickers’ lawsuit was dismissed on a Civil Rule 12(B)(6) motion filed by her former employer. On appeal, however, the First District reversed, holding that Bickers had met the requirements to maintain a Coolidge-based claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The Ohio Supreme Court then accepted jurisdiction to resolve the fundamental split of authority amongst the appellate courts.
In upholding the trial court’s dismissal of the case, the Supreme Court significantly limited the Coolidge holding to the specific facts that had given rise to that lawsuit. Unlike the plaintiff in Bickers, as well as the plaintiffs in the cases that had caused the split of authority, Coolidge was not an at-will employee. Instead, she was a school district employee subject to a contract governed by R.C. 3319.16, which afforded her protection from termination without “good and just cause.” Relying on this distinction, the Bickers Court pointedly stated: “we limit Coolidge to holding that terminating a teacher for absences due to a work-related injury while the teacher is receiving workers’ compensation benefits is a termination without ‘good and just cause’ under R.C. 3319.16.” Following this limitation, the Court then held that Coolidge does not create a separate common-law cause of action for an at-will employee who is terminated from employment while receiving worker’s compensation benefits, and that R.C. 4123.90 is “the exclusive remedy for [at-will] employees claiming termination in violation of rights conferred by the Workers’ Compensation Act.”
In reaching this decision, the Court struggled with the conflicting policies between denying employers “the exercise of their employment-at-will prerogative and requir[ing] them to hold open the jobs of injured employees for indefinite periods of time” versus “permit[ing] an employer to terminate a worker who is injured on the job and cannot work as a result.” Ultimately, the Court ruled in favor of employers, and found that it had invaded the province of the General Assembly when handing down the Coolidge decision. Said the Court:
In addressing this difficult policy issue, which lacks wholly satisfactory solutions, the General Assembly chose to proscribe retaliatory discharges only. Employers may not retaliate against employees for pursuing a workers’ compensation claim. It is within the prerogative and authority of the General Assembly to make this choice when determining policy in the workers’ compensation arena and in balancing, in that forum, employers’ and employees’ competing interests. We may not override this choice and superimpose a common-law, public-policy tort remedy on this wholly statutory system.
Thus, as of December 20, 2007, Ohio no longer recognizes a separate cause of action for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy for an at-will employee who is terminated while receiving workers’ compensation benefits in the absence of a retaliatory motive. As stated, this is a significant victory for employers because compensatory damages, front pay, and punitive damages are no longer available to employees claiming workers’ compensation retaliation. The only remedies now available to employees pursuing this claim are reinstatement, backpay, and attorney’s fees as set forth in R.C. 4123.90.