Alabama Courts Continue To Limit Retaliatory Discharge Claims
The old saying “bad facts make bad results” is certainly true in the case of M&J Materials, Inc. v. Isbell, just released by The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals. These bad facts provided our appellate courts another opportunity to express their general distaste for retaliatory discharge suits.
First, a little background is important. As many people know, Alabama is generally an “at will” employment state. What does that mean? It means your boss can fire you for a good reason, bad reason, or even no reason at all. I have to deliver this bad legal news to callers almost every week. Of course, the “at will” doctrine is subject to Federal discrimination laws and collective bargaining agreements by unions. Federal laws and unions aside, state law exceptions to the “at will” doctrine in Alabama are few and far between. Really, it’s closer to “slim and none” when exceptions are considered under Alabama law.
The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act does provide one exception to the “at will” doctrine. The Act says:
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 pursuant to subdivision (c)(4) of Section 25-5-11.
Ala. Code §25-5-11.1. In looking at this statue, our Courts have focused their attention largely on the word “solely.” The single word, solely, prevents most retaliatory discharge cases.
Now, back to the recently released case of M&J Materials. In this case, the employee injured his wrist at work. He made a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. Then, he was fired. What “reason” did the company provide for his termination? Apparently, the employee decided to bring his handgun to work. In an effort to argue the offered reason for the termination was simply a pretext to fire him for his workers’ compensation claim, the employee claimed his co-workers were also bringing their guns to work. Whether a common practice or not, the company had a clear written rule against bringing guns to work. And, there was no evidence management knew anything about other co-workers also bringing their guns to the plant.
All in all, these bad facts gave our appellate courts another opportunity to deny a retaliatory discharge claim and express just how difficult it will be to present these claims to a jury. Face it, employers don’t simply admit firing employees because they have been hurt on the job. Employers typically offer some other rationale for the firing.
If you are an injured worker, how do you prove the employer’s stated reason for firing you was simply an excuse because you sought workers’ compensation benefits? Clearly, you must do more than raise questions about the stated reason. Here is the tremendous hurdle an injured worker faces simply to get his claim to the jury:
An employer’s stated basis for a discharge is sufficient as a matter of law when the underlying facts surrounding the stated basis for the discharge are undisputed and there is no substantial evidence indicating:
(a) that the stated basis has been applied in a discriminatory manner to employees who have filed workers’ compensation claims;
(b) that the stated basis conflicts with express company policy on grounds for discharge, OR,
(c) that the employer has disavowed the stated reason or has otherwise acknowledged its pretextual status.
These cases are very difficult legally. Alabama law is NOT fair to injured workers. Bad employers are rarely held accountable. From the very beginning, it is essential that any attorney considering such a claim carefully screen the case, thoroughly investigate all the facts and diligently gather all the evidence in order to meet the high legal burden placed upon these claims in Alabama.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm helps injured workers across Alabama. If you suffered a serious personal injury, we are happy to answer your questions. Consultations are always free and confidential.