By: Anna M. Campbell
A very recent Missouri Supreme Court decision, John Templemire v. W&M Welding, Inc., 2014 Mo. LEXIS 111, determined the proper causation standard an employee must demonstrate to make a case for retaliatory discharge under the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Statute.
According to RSMo 287.780 “No employer or agent shall discharge or in any way discriminate against any employee for exercising any of his (or her) rights under this chapter. Any employee who has been discharged or discriminated against shall have a civil action for damages against his (or her) employer.” This means that an employer may not terminate an employee due to the fact that the employee has exercised his or her rights regarding a workers’ compensation claim against the employer.
The question was whether employee had to show his filing of a claim was the exclusive or only reason why employer fired him or her, or whether this filing of a claim caused or contributed to the discharge, even though it may not have been the only reason, for example, employee had disciplinary write-ups as well.
The Court went through a causation analysis, looking to the Missouri Human Rights Act (“the MHRA”) and public policy wrongful termination claims decisions. Several prior case decisions held that there must be an exclusive or direct causal relationship between plaintiff’s actions and defendant’s actions, i.e. that the exclusive cause of plaintiff’s discharge was the filing of her claim.
The Court in Templemire looked to the plain language of Section 287.780, which prohibits an employer from discharging or in any way discriminating against an employee for exercising his or her workers’ compensation rights. This Section does not contain the words “exclusively”, “solely” or “only” to support the exclusive causation standard. Therefore, prior cases that required exercise of workers’ compensation rights as the exclusive cause of discharge have flawed reasoning as they are unsupported by the plain language in the Statute and should not be followed.
The Court found the “contributing factor” standard should apply to causes of action that arise pursuant to Section 287.780. This standard serves two purposes: first, the contributory factor language is consistent with the legislature’s use of the phrase “in any way” and fulfills the purpose of the Statue, and second, this standard now aligns workers’ compensation discrimination with other Missouri employment discrimination laws. The Court noted there can be no tolerance for employment discrimination in the work place and that this was illegal and reprehensible. Employer’s argument was that abandoning the exclusive causation standard would permit an employee who was fired for legitimate reasons such as tardiness, absenteeism or incompetence at work to still be able to maintain a cause of action for discharge if the worker could persuade a fact finder that, in addition to other causes, a cause of discharge was the exercise of rights under the workers’ compensation law.
This case decision offers employees more protection in exercising their workers’ compensation rights and less fear from being terminated or discriminated against in their employment. It also demonstrates the law will not tolerate even a portion of an employer’s motivation to be discriminatory when discharging an employee.