In a decision that was disappointing but not entirely surprising, a federal court in Pennsylvania held that merely getting hurt at work wasn’t enough to claim wrongful termination in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim. (h/t to Tom Robinson for his post on the case.)
At the core of this decision is assumption about employment at-will that often underlies the interpretation of all sorts of employment laws. Here is why I think the decision was wrong, why I think it was decided the way it was and what that decision means in the bigger picture.
Why I think the Pennsylvania court got it wrong
I think the Pennsylvania federal court made the wrong decision for many reasons. In Kasten v. St. Gobain, the United States Supreme Court held that a question about the location of the time clock constituted a protected activity for the purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In other words, what constitutes a protected activity should be broadly construed.
Federal anti-discrimination law is also less than clear whether “protected status” and “protected activity” are really a different category. Justice Ginsburg made this argument in her dissent in the Nassar case. The reasoning behind this argument is that complaining about retaliation means that either you are member of a protected class or that someone in a protected class is being discriminated against. In the case of a work injury, protections against discrimination should attach when an employee is hurt at work rather than when they formally file. The reasoning supporting this proposition is that if formal filing of workers’ compensation is required, an employer is free to fire an employee who gets hurt but hasn’t filed a claim.
The importance of employment at-will
The rationale against these arguments in the Pennsylvania case was that workers’ compensation retaliation is an exception to employment at-will and the employment at-will exception should be construed narrowly by courts because of the importance of the “at-will employment” doctrine. This is a mainstream position held by most in the employment defense bar. Though employment at-will is rarely cited in federal case law involving employment issues, I believe veneration of employment at will underlies most decisions limiting the application of exceptions to employment at-will.
You can see the force of employment at-will at work in the Department of Justice’s brief arguing against including gender identity within Title VII. The argument for including gender identity and sexual orientation within Title VII is based on the “sex plus” theory in announced in the Price Waterhouse case. The DOJ narrowly construes the “sex plus” theory of discriination to argue that gender identity and sexual orientation aren’t per se covered by Title VII. That argument is supported by reasoning that requires injured workers formally file workers’ compensation claims in order to be protected against discrimination from their employers because of their injury. Both arguments rest on narrowly interpreteting exceptions to employment at-will.
Jursidcition and role of federal courts in workers’ compensation retaliation
Another question is why was this case in federal court in the first place? Workers’ compensation and workers’ compensation retaliation cases are state law cases. But in the Pennsylvania case involved a federal ADA complaint so the court took jurisdiction under so-called pendent or ancillary jurisdiction. Even in a purely state law claim a federal court can take jurisdiction through so-called diversity jurisdiction, if the employee and employer are citizens of different states as is often the case.
Federal law isn’t controlling over state law, but state courts often look to federal courts to interpret employment law. Federal judges have the chance to interpreter state law workers’ compensation retaliation cases in diversity jurisdiction cases In my view, federal district courts serve almost as a parallel appellate level court in Nebraska. So even if this Pennsylvania decision isn’t controlling authority, it will certainly persuade other courts faced with similar issues.
What the case means for injured workers and their lawyers
This case stands for the proposition that injured workers are going to need to actively pursue workers’ compensation claims or risk having their retaliation claims dismissed for not engaging in the protected activity of filing workers’ compensation. This is often challenging because injured workers sometimes wrongly believe that aggravations of old injuries or overuse injuries aren’t covered by workers’ compensation. Employees may also feel that workers’ compensation is dirty or illegitimate and let that stigma discourage them from filing a workers’ compensation claim. Employers may also be discouraging employees from filing workers’ compensation claims through safety programs or by encouraging employees to shift the costs of a work injury on to private health insurance and or private disability insurance.
In short many of the same mental hurdles and practices that can complicate a workers’ compensation claim can also weaken an injured workers’ protections against discrimination.