If you are employed in Alabama, you know that we are considered an "at-will" employment state. That means you can be terminated for any reason, or no reason at all, with one exception: discrimination. Federal anti-discrimination laws prevent employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees who are protected by those laws. Alabama employees are also protected by Alabama's Worker's Compensation statute.
Alabama's Worker's Compensation Act
The language of the Alabama Worker's Compensation Act provides an important exception to the "at will" doctrine. The Act reads as follows:
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.
The key word is "solely," which is the language that Courts often focus on in ruling on Worker's Comp retaliation cases. In other words, if there is another reason to terminate an employee, then the retaliation claim may not survive.
Why Are Worker's Comp Retaliation Claims Difficult to Win?
Worker's comp retaliation cases can be tough to prove, mostly because the employee has a huge hurdle to overcome. The employer's articulated reason for the termination is considered by courts to be "sufficient as a matter of law, when the underlying facts… are undisputed and there is no substantial evidence" of any of the following:
- The given reason has been applied as a means of discrimination against workers who filed worker's compensation claims
- The given reason conflicts with company policy concerning reasons for discharge
- The given reason has been disavowed by the employer or acknowledged as pretext
With none of these factors at play, a retaliatory claim can be problematic for the employee. This is demonstrated in the Alabama case, M&J Materials, Inc. v. Isbell.
Denial of a Retaliatory Discharge Claim
In M&J Materials, an employee injured his wrist at work and made a claim for workers' compensation benefits. He was subsequently terminated. Unfortunately, the employee brought a handgun to work, which gave his employer the perfect reason to fire him. Despite the employee's claim that other employees were allowed to bring their guns to work as well, there was a clear written company policy prohibiting such conduct. With evidence of a legitimate reason for termination, the retaliation claim was dismissed.
Evidence of Retaliatory Intent Is Hard to Come By
It is most often true that bad facts in a case allow courts to make bad laws. In the case of M&J Materials, the appellate court was given yet another opportunity to deny a retaliatory discharge claim. Obviously, employers will not admit that an employee was terminated because he or she was injured on the job; instead, they typically provide some other justification for terminating an employee. It is the employee's job to prove that the reason is only an excuse for retaliation. Unfortunately, when an employee "gives" the employer a legitimate reason for terminating them, the retaliation claim can be undone.
Have you been discriminated against? If you have any reason to believe that your employer wrongfully terminated you, let a Birmingham employment lawyer know: call Wrady Michel & King at (205) 265-1880 to discuss your situation and learn how we can help!