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Ohio Supreme Court places limits on public-Policy terminations

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in Employee Benefits Program,Firing,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

In a dramatic reversal, the Ohio Supreme Court significantly limited the reach of its earlier decision in Coolidge v. Riverdale School Systems. That 2003 decision led attorneys and employers to conclude that it violated Ohio state public policy to terminate any employee who was eligible to receive temporary total disability payments under the Ohio Workers’ Compensation Act. That was true even if the termination resulted from a uniformly applied, neutral attendance policy.

In the new decision, Bickers v. Western Southern Life Insurance Company, the court limited Coolidge to mean that terminating a teacher for absences due to a work-related injury while the teacher is receiving workers’ compensation benefits is a termination without “just and good cause” under R.C. § 3319.16. The court also held that R.C. § 4123.90 “provides the exclusive remedy for employees claiming termination in violation of the rights conferred by the Workers’ Compensation Act.”

Coolidge stunned employers

When the court issued its decision in Coolidge, employers across Ohio were stunned. The Coolidge court specifically held that an employee who is receiving temporary total disability compensation pursuant to R.C. § 4123.56 may not be discharged solely on the basis of absenteeism or inability to work when the absence or inability to work is directly related to an allowed condition.

Lower courts, attorneys and commentators have struggled with determining the exact scope of Coolidge and how to apply it in the workplace. But nearly all have agreed that Coolidge extended to the nonretaliatory terminations of employees who were receiving temporary total disability compensation. Thus, many Ohio employers changed the way they dealt with employees who were off work for long periods of time. They scrapped policies that called for the administrative termination of employees who did not work for a specified period of time (such as one year), regardless of the reason for the absence from work.

Bickers brings relief

The plaintiff in Coolidge was a teacher who was employed under a contract governed by R.C. § 3319.16. She could not be terminated without “good and just cause.”

Responding to the criticism that followed in the wake of the Coolidge decision, the Bickers court retreated from the plain language of Coolidge. The Supreme Court stated that Coolidge really meant 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.

Termination after Bickers

In Bickers, the court said Coolidge does not create a cause of action for an at-will employee who is terminated for nonretaliatory reasons.

The Ohio Supreme Court first recognized the tort claim of wrongful termination in violation of public policy in 1990. Since then, the parameters of a public-policy, wrongful discharge claim have been a moving target. For the first several years, the claim seemed to be an ever-expanding one. In its heyday, it seemed that any employee whose termination violated a statute could add a separate public-policy, wrongful discharge claim.

That trend gravely concerned employers because the tort remedies associated with the public-policy claim were often significantly broader than the remedies available under the statute at issue. In fact, the remedies available under R.C. § 4123.90 are limited to the “equitable” remedies of reinstatement, back pay and attorneys fees. By appending a separate public-policy claim, plaintiffs were able to open the Pandora’s box of remedies affiliated with tort claims, including compensable damages for “pain and suffering” and punitive damages.

The Bickers court specifically stated, “An employee who is terminated from employment while receiving workers’ compensation has no common-law cause of action for wrongful discharge in violation of the public policy underlying R.C. § 4123.90, which provides the exclusive remedy for employees claiming termination in violation of the rights conferred by the Workers’ Compensation Act.”

Thus, the Ohio Supreme Court appears to have put the brakes on the expansion of the tort wrongful-discharge claim by holding that there is no separate public-policy claim for a retaliatory discharge claim that can be brought under R.C. § 4123.90.

In the aftermath of Coolidge, many employers modified their workplace policies. Because Bickers specifically holds that there is no cause of action for nonretaliatory discharges, it appears that Ohio employers can reinstate neutral policies that terminate employment after absences of a defined length, so long as the policy is evenly applied to all employees, regardless of the reason for the absence. 

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