An employee need not actually file a claim for workers’ compensation to be subject to retaliation for his intent to do so, a Utah court of appeals ruled.
In November of 2009, Terry Lee Stone was injured at a party thrown by his employer, M&M Welding and Construction. A few days later, Stone informed M&M’s president that he intended to file a workers’ compensation claim, but the latter persuaded him not to. Following a two-month recovery, Stone returned to work, but found his work hours had been reduced. Soon thereafter, Stone repeated his intention to file for workers’ compensation.
On May 1, 2010, while performing work on the premises of an M&M customer, Stone reported the spillage of contaminated water. The customer complained to M&M that Stone was exaggerating the incident and urged that he be terminated. Four days later, Stone requested certain insurance information from M&M pursuant to his workers’ compensation claim. M&M fired Stone the next day, May 6.
Stone filed a wrongful termination suit alleging that M&M acted in retaliation for his announced intent to file for workers’ compensation. Because Stone had not actually filed his claim at the time of his separation and did not do so until February of 2011, M&M motioned for dismissal. M&M argued that it could not have retaliated against Stone for something he had not yet done. The trial court agreed and dismissed Stone’s case.
On appeal, Stone complained that the lower court placed “undue importance” on the date of his workers’ compensation filing. M&M responded that Stone had the burden of showing a causal connection between his firing and the actual filing of his claim.
The appeals court was unimpressed with M&M’s argument and noted that the Utah Supreme Court has taken a very broad view as to what constitutes retaliation — that “the discharge and the conduct … are causally connected.” While helpful or relevant, the court said, the actual filing date of a workers’ compensation claim need not necessarily predate the alleged retaliatory action. “A rule protecting employees only after filing would create a perverse incentive for an employer to discharge an injured employee as soon as the employer learns of the employee’s intention to file a claim.” Accordingly, the court held that Stone’s stated intention to file for workers’ compensation could be considered sufficient evidence to demonstrate that M&M had acted in a retaliatory manner when it fired him.
The court reversed the dismissal of Stone’s suit and remanded for further proceedings.
Stone v. M&M Welding & Constr., Inc., Utah Ct. App., No. 20120359-CA (Sept. 26, 2013).
Kirk Rafdal, J.D., is a staff writer for SHRM.