The Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to Oklahoma’s workers compensation retaliation statute based in part on the fact the statute doesn’t provide for trial by jury.
Workers compensation retaliation is a common law tort in Nebraska that provides for a trial by jury in a court of general jurisdiction. I believe there are upsides and downsides of making workers compensation retaliation cases tried to juries in a court of general jurisdiction rather than tried in a workers compensation court of limited jurisdiction.
I see some procedural advantages to trying workers’ compensation retaliation cases within the workers’ compensation court, but in substance I think it is better to try these cases in courts of general jurisdiction.
Here are the upsides of trying workers compensation retaliation cases to juries in courts of general jurisdiction.
1. Unlimited damages — Jury verdicts generally aren’t capped. There have been recent seven figure verdicts in workers compensation retaliation cases in Alabama and California. Workers compensation limits damages but those damages are capped with the understanding that fault isn’t relevant to getting benefits. Retaliation is clearly a matter of fault, so it should follow that damages should be unlimited in retaliation cases.
2. Bringing other causes of action — Workers compensation laws limit the jurisdiction of workers compensation courts. So even if a workers’ compensation court can adjudicate a workers’ compensation retaliation case, it doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear an FMLA, ADA or whistleblower claims that often arise along with a workers’ compensation retaliation case. Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation retaliation statute was passed in 1976. The ADA and FMLA were passed in the early 1990s before those laws went into effect. I would imagine states with workers’ compensation retaliation by statute have run into similar conflicts.
Another related drawback for a plaintiff is res judicata. An employee forced to try a workers’ compensation retaliation case in a workers’ compensation court, could be unable to bring a related ADA or FMLA claim in a court of general jurisdiction if they lost their workers compensation retaliation claim.
Advantage of trying workers compensation retaliation cases in workers compensation courts.
1. Less motion practice — Time consuming summary judgment motions are the bane of the existence of lawyers who represent employees. Statistically most employment law cases end on summary judgment.
Summary judgment is used a lot less in workers compensation. In Nebraska the judges discourage summary judgment because of the short time it takes to bring a case to trial and because of the extra work required in hearing what amounts to a trial on paper. My impression from listening to judges in other states is that they would agree with their colleagues in Nebraska.
2. Less risk of arbitration — More employers, encouraged by recent Supreme Court decisions, have forced employees to have private arbitrators rather than courts decide employment law disputes. But cases brought in an administrative agency are exempted from arbitration clauses. Workers compensation cases can be decided within the judicial and executive branch. They are also usually not jury trials. In short, it would be harder to force a workers’ compensation retaliation case into arbitration if it is heard within a workers’ compensation court.
3. Simpler and more certain procedure — Workers’ compensation courts generally have simplified rules of evidence and procedure that is supposed to reduce the cost of litigation. Since workers’ compensation courts are generally tried to single judges instead of jurors, it would be easier to predict how they would decide a case.
Though workers’ compensation judges in Nebraska can’t adjudicate retaliation cases, reported and unreported cases would indicate that the judges are aware of the issue and reasonably sympathetic to employees who may have been retaliated against for bringing workers’ compensation claims.
Counter-point: Hearing retaliation cases could delay and complicate resolution of workers’ compensation cases.
Justice delayed is justice denied. In Nebraska, an injured worker can get a hearing date within 6-9 months of fling a petition and get a written decision in a matter of weeks after trial. I had a trial last month that lasted one hour inclusive of pre-trial matters, opening statements, witness testimony and closing arguments. I suspect Nebraska’s efficiency in adjudicating work injury claims would be impaired if our workers’ compensation court judges had to adjudicate workers’ compensation retaliation cases. I suspect it would take longer to to get a trial, trials would take longer and decisions would be slower.