Changing Times: Missouri Supreme Court Reinterprets Workers’ Compensation Law – By: Conor Neusel

Published by MoASBO, May 2014

On April 15, 2014, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a ground-breaking decision that made it much easier for employees to establish workers’ compensation retaliation cases against employers. Previously, plaintiffs claiming workers’ compensation retaliation were required to establish that their employer took an adverse employment action against them “exclusively” because they exercised their rights under the Missouri’s workers’ compensation statute. Now, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Templemire v. W&M Welding, Inc., plaintiffs need only prove that their workers’ compensation claims were a “contributing factor” in the adverse employment decision. In other words, employers may now be held liable for retaliation if any part of their decision to terminate an employee was based on an employee’s workers’ compensation claim.

In Templemire, the plaintiff severely injured his foot during the course of his employment. The plaintiff reported the injury to his employer and filed a workers’ compensation claim for which he received benefits. When he finally returned to work a month later, the plaintiff was subject to several injury-related restrictions. For instance, he had to wear a protective boot on his injured foot and was prohibited from climbing ladders. About ten months after his return to work, the employer discharged him. Plaintiff then filed suit against the employer for retaliating against him for filing a workers’ compensation claim.

At trial, the employer presented evidence that the plaintiff had ignored instructions and was insubordinate. The plaintiff responded by presenting evidence that the employer’s owner referred to injured workers as “whiners,” yelled at plaintiff because of his injury, and failed to follow a progressive discipline policy when discharging the plaintiff. Regardless, the jury sided with the employer and found that the plaintiff had failed to prove that his workers’ compensation claim was the exclusive reason for the employer’s decision to discharge him.

The Missouri Supreme Court eventually reversed the judgment of the trial court. In doing so, the Court decided to abandon the exclusive causation standard that employers and employees had relied upon since 1984, when it was first pronounced in the case Handsome v. Northwestern Cooperage Co. The Court determined that the holding in Handsome was “clearly erroneous” and “‘appears to be plucked out of thin air’ with no support in the case law or statutory interpretation.” Instead, the Court held that the “contributing factor” causation standard should apply to workers’ compensation retaliation claims. According to the Court, adopting this standard serves two purposes.   First, this standard fulfills the purpose of the statute, which is to prohibit employers “from discharging or in any way discriminating against an employee” for exercising his or her rights under the workers’ compensation law. Second, this new standard “aligns workers’ compensation discrimination with other Missouri employment discrimination laws.”

After the decision in Templemire, employers face a much stiffer challenge when an employee asserts that he or she was discharged or punished at work for making a workers’ compensation claim. Just like under the Missouri Human Rights Act, the plaintiff must now only show that a discriminatory reason was a contributory factor in the adverse employment decision. If an employer has ten reasons for terminating an employee, and a jury believes that one of those reasons is related to the employee’s claim for workers’ compensation, then the termination is illegal. In the future, employers should proceed with caution and seek legal counsel when terminating or taking any other adverse employment action against an employee who has filed a workers’ compensation claim. Furthermore, employers should be very careful to refrain from making negative remarks towards employees who make workers’ compensation claims or receive work accommodations.

© 2014 Mickes Goldman O’Toole, LLC

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