Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Worker’s Compensation Retaliatory Discharge: Termination vs. Layoff vs. Suspension

A recent Illinois worker’s compensation retaliation case demonstrates a subtle, but important distinction for employers, especially those that use seasonal employees, or lay off workers while keeping them subject to recall.

The facts of the case, which originated out of Illinois’s 3rd District in Peoria, are a little confusing. Plaintiff was a registered nurse working in a rehabilitation unit in a medical center. She injured her knee, which required surgery to repair the damage and resulted in her having a 20 pound lifting restriction, which ultimately became permanent. This limitation disqualified the employee from her RN position; the company HR representative then mistakenly advised the employee that she was going to be terminated within 30 days if she could not find work within the medical facility. The company ultimately issued plaintiff a letter indicating she was terminated on June 18, 2008 (yes, it took 5 years for this case to make its way to just a first level appeal) and the plaintiff henceforth acted as if that was the date she was fired. In the meantime, the company attempted to rescind its termination by notifying Plaintiff that she could return to work, but by then the plaintiff had moved and taken another position with another employer.

Plaintiff sued for retaliatory discharge, under the Illinois Worker’s Compensation Act, claiming that she was fired in retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim. She ultimately amended this to allege not a retaliatory discharge, but rather a retaliatory failure to recall to work. Based on plaintiff’s admissions in her pleadings that she was terminated on June 18, 2008, the trial court granted summary judgment for the employer, and the Appellate Court affirmed.

The Appellate Court’s opinion raises an interesting point of law on retaliatory discharge claims with respect to worker’s compensation. Specifically, an employee who has been fired by her employer can generally only sue for retaliatory discharge. She may not sue for failure to rehire or failure to recall, which are expressly reserved, under Illinois law, for claims by seasonal employees (failure to rehire when seasonal hiring begins) or regular employees on leave or temporary layoff (failure to recall). In other words, in Illinois, a terminated employee gets only a retaliatory discharge claim. The Appellate Court noted that it would not allow a claim for failure to rehire or recall for a terminated employee because Illinois courts will not force an ongoing employment relationship between hostile parties when it can use monetary damages to compensate the unfairly terminated employee.

The vast majority of retaliation claims under workers compensation will be for retaliatory discharges, while failure to rehire/recall will be reserved for those rare circumstances where there are seasonal employees in play, or layoffs and leaves of absences occurring and the employment relationship is ongoing. Here, the plaintiff’s failure to recognize that she could not assert a retaliatory failure to rehire/recall claim since she had admitted she was terminated, worked as an effective bar to her lawsuit.

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