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Were you fired for filing a workers’ compensation claim?

In an online, question-and-answer forum not long ago, a questioner related: I was out on workers compensation for an injury I suffered while at work. After about three weeks, I received a phone call telling me that I was being terminated because of poor work performance. My supervisor complained not long before I was injured that the company was concerned about there being too many workers compensation claims. Do I have any recourse? I really need the job.

Minnesota law forbids a retaliatory discharge for filing a workers’ compensation claim. The statute provides that any person who discharges an employee for seeking workers’ compensation benefits is liable in a civil suit for damages, including costs and attorney’s fees. The statute also provides for punitive damages of up to three times the amount of damages and the damages awarded are not reduced by any works compensation received.

A 2013 decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals of Brown-Rojina v. Minneapolis Glass Company, Inc. is instructive on how this statute may be applied. After suffering a work-related back injury, the employee returned to work and his job duties were modified to accommodate his physical limitations. One day, several fellow employees observed the employee staggering, talking loudly, slurring his speech, and other signs that the employee had been drinking and was intoxicated. This was not his usual behavior. The supervisor confronted the employee and smelled alcohol on his breath and sent him home-saying it was not safe for the employee or his coworkers. When the owner of the company arrived the next day, she spoke with the supervisor and several of the employees who witnessed the events, and terminated the employee for being intoxicated at work. The employee denied having been drinking and claimed his behavior was the result of medication he was taking for pain.

Previous decisions by the Court of Appeals had noted that an adverse employment action taken shortly after a workers compensation claim had been filed was some evidence of causation of a retaliatory discharge, but by itself was not sufficient.

The Court of Appeals noted that Minnesota appellate courts had not addressed the specific issue of whether a reason for termination must be accurate in fact, but looked to federal court interpretations federal antidiscrimination laws for guidance. The court applied the test of whether the employer “in good faith believed that the employee was guilty of the conduct justifying discharge” and that it need not actually be accurate if the employer honestly believed the grounds when the employee was terminated.

The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision that the termination was not a pretext-that the termination was not for filing a workers’ compensation claim, but for a good-faith belief of alcohol abuse.

Obviously, anyone who believes that they were terminated from their employment because of filing a worker’s compensation claim needs the advice of an experienced Minnesota workers compensation attorney who understands the nuances in this complex area of the law to properly evaluate whether a viable claim for retaliatory discharge can be made.