The Missouri Supreme Court Lowers the Bar for Employees in Workers’ Compensation Retaliation Cases

May 21, 2014

Background

In order to successfully sue their employers for discrimination or retaliation, employees must convince a jury that they were treated differently because of a protected characteristic, such as their race or gender. Historically, courts have been confounded by the level of causation required: must the characteristic be the only reason for the decision? Or, could it be merely one of several reasons?

Until 2007, employees were required to prove that their status was the exclusive cause of the adverse employment decision. But that year, the Missouri Supreme Court began adopting a lesser standard, first for discrimination claims under the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA), then, in 2009, for MHRA retaliation cases, and in 2010 for claims of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy (so-called "whistleblower" claims). This new standard allowed employees to prevail if their status merely contributed to the employer's decision, even if there were other, valid reasons as well.

Last month, the Court extended this trend to claims alleging retaliation for exercising rights under the Missouri Workers' Compensation Law.

The Templemire Opinion

In the Templemire case, the employee, John Templemire, had been injured when a metal beam fell and crushed his foot. He required surgery, time off, and job modifications. His employer allowed him to return and even created a light-duty position specifically for him. But several months later, Templemire got into an argument with the owner of the company, who fired him on the spot.

At trial, Templemire presented evidence that the owner told others that Templemire had been "milking" his injury, and that the owner routinely referred to employees who had filed workers' compensation claims as "whiners." On the stand, the owner told his version of events, but still characterized Templemire as a "high-maintenance employee." At the close of evidence, the judge instructed the jury that they were to rule in Templemire's favor only if it found that his workers' compensation claim was the exclusive reason for the termination decision. The jury found in favor of his employer.

The narrow question presented to the Missouri Supreme Court on appeal was whether the trial judge had given the correct causation instruction. Two prior Missouri Supreme Court cases had explicitly held that the exclusive causation standard – the one issued by the trial judge – was correct. Yet, by a 5-2 vote, the majority of the Court overturned their prior cases and rejected the exclusive causation standard. Instead, it held that the more lenient, contributing factor standard must be used in the same manner as with MHRA and wrongful discharge claims. Mincing no words, the Court concluded that "the law will not tolerate even a portion of an employer's motivation to be discriminatory."

Implications for Employers

At first blush, this decision is simply an incremental expansion of the Court's recent precedent in other areas of employment law. But this case is significant in that the Court upended its settled interpretation of the Workers' Compensation Law, on which employers have relied for the past 30 years. Moreover, this change in interpretation comes after the legislature completely overhauled the Workers' Compensation Law in 2005, but, notably, left the now-defunct exclusive causation standard untouched.

Naturally, the more lenient contributing factor standard increases the likelihood that an employee who has made a workers' compensation claim will file a lawsuit if he or she is later terminated. And it makes it more likely that the employee's claim will survive motions before a judge and, ultimately, prevail at trial.

Careful employers will recognize that the new standard also applies to adverse decisions that "in any way" discriminate against an employee for exercising his or her workers' compensation rights. Surely, this applies to discipline, demotion, and termination. But it also likely encompasses decisions about light duty, leaves of absence, extra break time, and other job modifications prompted by workplace injuries.

Managing employees with physical or mental impairments is always a challenge. This case makes dealing with employees who are injured on the job even more difficult. Employers should take care to treat employees fairly and based only on legitimate factors. It is particularly important to train frontline supervisors to speak with human resources or other appropriate officials, rather than expressing their frustration over an employee who they believe to be "milking" the system. Just one offhand comment like that could provide all the evidence an employee would need to file suit and win.

The labor and employment attorneys at Lewis Rice help large and small companies navigate the complicated issues presented by injured workers, employee medical leave, and reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. If you would like to discuss the implications of this case, Templemire v. W&M Welding, Inc., No. SC 93132 (Mo. banc Apr. 15, 2014), or any other workplace legal concerns, we would be happy to work through them with you.

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