Retaliation claims have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, reasonably causing employers to think twice before taking an adverse employment action. In particular, prudent employers often consider all relevant facts and appearances before terminating the employment of a worker who has filed a claim for workers compensation benefits.
Minnesota law prohibits an employer from “discharging or threatening to discharge an employee for seeking workers compensation benefits or in any manner intentionally obstructing an employee seeking workers’ compensation benefits.” Minn. Stat. § 176.82. This anti-retaliation provision provided the basis for an employee’s recent civil claim against his employer when he was discharged shortly after experiencing a workplace injury. See Anderson v. North American Gear & Forge, No. A15-0966 (Minn. Ct. App. January 11, 2016).
Anderson unfortunately had a small piece of hot metal get behind his safety glasses and slightly burn the skin near his eye. He informed his supervisor who in turn helped Anderson initiate a workers compensation claim. Seeing the injury as minor, the supervisor allegedly resisted Anderson leaving work to see a doctor. Nonetheless, the supervisor let him go. The doctor cleared Anderson to return to work without restrictions with only a “tiny burn” next to his eye with no eye damage. Anderson stayed home the next day and saw another doctor who also returned him to work immediately without restrictions. The following day Anderson returned to work, but wanted to leave early to again see the original doctor. His supervisor again allegedly resisted, but permitted him to leave. The doctor again found no workplace restrictions. Anderson did not return to work until the following week. When Anderson returned, his supervisor terminated his employment for excessive absenteeism. Anderson was already on a final warning regarding his attendance. Anderson then sued claiming violation of Minn. Stat. § 176.82.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of Anderson’s retaliation claim. In doing so, the court noted that despite having an allegedly hostile attitude toward Anderson’s injury, the supervisor nonetheless assisted Anderson in filing a workers compensation claim and permitted Anderson to leave work for doctor’s visits. The court also noted that in processing Anderson’s claim, the company followed its standard policy. Having done so, the employer was able to show that Anderson’s discharge was the result of his unexcused absences following his medical release to return to work without restrictions, in combination with the other absences which had already led to his final warning.
Takeaway: Employers should evaluate all relevant circumstances in assessing the risk of a retaliation claim when discharging an employee. In particular, an employer can minimize the risk of a workers compensation retaliation claim by following its standard policy, promptly assisting the injured employee in filing for benefits, and reasonably permitting the employee an opportunity to seek medical treatment and evaluation.