On May 7, the Alabama Supreme Court issued an opinion in Register v. Outdoor Aluminum, Inc.. The case addressed a claim of retaliatory discharge for filing a work comp claim in Alabama. Every so often, the court issues an opinion reminding everyone how difficult these cases are to prove. Let’s take a look at some of the issues.
Retaliatory Discharge: An Exception To At-Will Employment
The general rule in Alabama is that employment is “at-will.” What does at-will employment mean? It means you can be fired for any reason at all. Your employer does not need a good or justifiable reason to terminate you.
Of course, we have a few exceptions. A few employees are covered by union contracts that protect their jobs. Certain Federal laws also protect some employees. My law firm recently resolved a claim involving the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which provides limited leave for serious medical conditions by employees at certain large, covered employers. Last week, I wrote a blog post on a recent 11th Circuit decision involving the FMLA. With large employers, work comp and FMLA can present overlapping issues.
One exception to at-will employment under Alabama law is Section 25-5-11.1 in The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. This section seeks to prevent companies from firing people in retaliation for pursuing workers’ compensation claims.
What Is Retaliatory Discharge In Alabama?
What does Section 25-5-11.1 say? Here it is:
No employee shall be terminated by an employer solely because the employee has instituted or maintained any action against the employer to recover workers’ compensation benefits under this chapter or solely because the employee has filed a written notice of violation of a safety rule pursuant to subdivision (c)(4) of Section 25-5-11.
So, the Alabama Legislature created an exception to our general at-will employment doctrine. Companies cannot fire employees solely because they sought work comp benefits. I emphasize “solely” because a company might have several reasons to terminate someone. Often, the issue is whether or not those other reasons are legitimate or true.
How Do You Prove Retaliatory Discharge? The Boss Is Probably Not Going To Admit Why He Fired You!
What is required to prove a retaliatory discharge claim? As the Alabama Supreme Court reminds us in its recent Register v. Outdoor Aluminum case, an employee must prove:
- An employment relationship;
- An on-the-job injury;
- Knowledge on the part of his employer of the on-the-job injury; and,
- Subsequent termination of employment based solely upon the employee’s on-the-job injury and the filing of a work comp claim.
Occasionally, our cases involve disputes over the employer’s knowledge of the injury. But, most of the time, the issue is whether or not the termination was based solely upon the work comp claim.
I’ve been practicing work comp law for over two decades. I’ve also handled cases involving other employment-protecting laws, including some Federal laws. The boss is never going to admit he or she fired you for filing a work comp claim! Since you won’t get an admission, how do you prove your claim?
These claims can be difficult to prove. And, they typically rely on circumstantial evidence. What are some pieces of circumstantial evidence that may link the termination to the work comp claim? The circumstantial evidence can include:
- A close proximity in time between the claim and the firing;
- Knowledge of the compensation claim by those making the decision on termination;
- Expressions of a negative attitude toward the employee’s injured condition;
- Failure to adhere to established company policy;
- Discriminatory treatment in comparison to similarly situated employees;
- Sudden changes in an employee’s work performance evaluations following a work comp claim; or,
- Evidence that the stated reason for the discharge was false.
In the recent Register v. Outdoor Aluminum case, the evidence indicated the employer knew about the claim, expressed a negative attitude toward the employee for making the claim, and, failed to follow its own attendance policies in terminating the employee. Based on that evidence, our Supreme Court held a jury should hear the evidence and decide if the employer’s reason was simply a pretext for retaliatory discharge.
These cases are often difficult to pursue. They require an in-depth investigation into the circumstances surrounding the work comp claim and termination. Even then, the circumstantial evidence may not be sufficient. To win, your lawyer must work hard to build a convincing circumstantial evidence case.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm helps injured people across Alabama. We have tried cases involving work-related accidents and injuries in courtrooms throughout Alabama. If you have questions about a legal issue, let us know. Our consultations are always free and confidential. We are happy to answer your questions. We also hope you find needed information in the articles we’ve written and published.