It is a well-known principle of general retaliation law that, the mere fact a claim is pending when an employee is terminated, is not sufficient to win a retaliatory discharge claim. A good example of this principle in action is the case of Freedom v. Meijer Great Lakes Ltd., in Michigan. Although the employee in that case had a pending Workers' Compensation claim when she was fired, the court determined she had not presented any proof that the claim was actually the reason for her termination.
Cashier terminated while her Workers' Comp claim was pending
In this case, Faith Freedom (a cashier) was questioned about a number of unusual transactions traced to her register, while her workers' compensation claim was pending. After the investigation was concluded, Ms. Freedom was terminated. Interestingly, on the same day she was fired, two other employees who had also filed workers' compensation claims, were also terminated. Despite this evidence, the court found she did not present sufficient evidence of retaliation. Instead, the court held that the only evidence she presented was that her claim was pending and two other terminated employees also had pending claims.
What proof was she missing?
First, the loss prevention officer who investigated the unusual transactions which led to Ms. Freedom's termination had no knowledge of the workers' compensation claim. Also, the store manager who may have had knowledge of the claim was not actually involved in the decision to investigate and terminate Ms. Freedom. This is important because retaliatory motive cannot be established if the person making the decision was unaware of the protected conduct (i.e., the Workers' Compensation claim).
As for the other employees who were also terminated, the court determined that Ms. Freedom did not explain the circumstances surrounding those two terminations, other than that there were claims pending. Essentially, Ms. Freedom failed to produce any evidence linking her claim to the subsequent termination, or giving rise to an inference of discrimination.
What proof did the employer have?
On the other hand, the court found that the employer had substantial evidence that their decision to terminate Ms. Freedom was completely justified. The court pointed to the fact that Ms. Freedom was the only employee who had 19 questionable transactions in one week. Other cashiers who were investigated had questionable transactions spread out over a longer period of time. Since Ms. Freedom's alleged infractions were more serious, she was not similarly situated with those other cashiers.
Most compelling for the company was the fact that none of its representatives responsible for her termination had any knowledge of the claim. The court found that was a key factor in dismissing her claims. The lesson to be learned is that an employee must have proof, not merely speculation, that retaliation was the reason for termination. The mere fact that a workers' compensation claim is pending will not be enough.
If you have questions regarding Workers' Compensation laws in Alabama, your employment rights, or possible legal claims, please contact our firm either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.