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Ohio Supreme Court Limits Wrongful Discharge Claim

Krugliak, Wilkins, Griffiths & Dougherty Co., L.P.A.

Recently, the Ohio Supreme Court determined that at-will employees in Ohio do not have a common law action for wrongful discharge merely because they were discharged while receiving workers’ compensation benefits.  See Bickers v. W & S Life Insurance Company, 2007 Ohio 6751 (Ohio 2007).  This decision clarifies the Court’s 2003 decision in Coolidge v. Riverdale Local School District, in which the Court held an employee may sue an employer for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy where the employee is discharged for nonretaliatory reasons while receiving workers’ compensation benefits.  As a result of the Bickers decision, at-will employees are limited to filing claims for retaliatory discharge under Ohio’s Workers’ Compensation Act. 

Bickers was an at-will employee who, at the time of her discharge, was receiving temporary total disability benefits.  Bickers’ suit claimed, among other things, that she was discharged while receiving temporary total disability benefits in violation of public policy.  In support of her position, Bickers relied expressly on the Supreme Court’s earlier decision in Coolidge. 

As you will remember, Coolidge involved a discharge of a public school teacher who was also receiving temporary total disability benefits at the time.  Coolidge was employed under a contract governed by state law relating to the employment of teachers, which required good and just cause for termination.  The court, in Coolidge, held “An employee who is receiving temporary total disability compensation pursuant to Revised Code § 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.”  As a result, some courts interpreted Coolidge to expand the public policy exception to the state’s employment-at-will doctrine.  As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bickers, the Coolidge decision is limited to considerations of whether “good and just cause” supports the termination of an employee protected by the state’s law governing the employment of public school teachers.  Most importantly, the court in Bickers specifically determined that “the constitutionally sanctioned, and legislatively created, compromise of employer and employee interests reflected in the workers’ compensation system precludes a common law claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy when an employee files a workers’ compensation claim and is discharged for nonretaliatory reasons.” 

For employers, the decision clarifies that an employee who believes he or she has been discharged in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim must follow the requirements for filing a retaliatory discharge claim as set forth in the Workers’ Compensation Act.  According to the Supreme Court’s decision in Bickers, employees may no longer claim a violation of public policy.

NOTE: This general summary of the law should not be used to solve individual problems since slight changes in the fact situation may require a material variance in the applicable legal advice.

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