King v. Cowboy Dodge, Inc. – Workers’ Compensation Retaliation

One of the benefits of having an experienced legal team handle your North Carolina workers’ compensation claim is that any acts of retaliation taken in response to that claim will be well-documented. autopaint.jpg

There are many ways employers may try to take action against employees who file injury claims, and some are not always obvious.

This kind of retaliation can be grounds for a separate legal claim for damages. Our compassionate legal team assists clients in not only securing fair work injury benefits, but in properly documenting retaliatory actions in a way that will preserve the case for a future civil lawsuit, if that is deemed necessary.

The problem of retaliation for workers’ compensation claims is not unique to Greensboro or even North Carolina.

The recent case of King v. Cowboy Dodge, Inc. was a workers’ compensation retaliation case that was recently weighed by the Wyoming Supreme Court. Justices decided the case in favor of the plaintiff, reversing a previous summary judgment favoring defendant employer.

According to court records, plaintiff was hired by defendant in February 2009 as a painter of automobiles at an auto body shop. About two years into his employment, he was working one day when he felt a “pop” in the lower part of his back, resulting in radiating pain down his left leg. He reported his injury to his employer three days later. According to plaintiff, his supervisor did not suggest filing an injury report, but instead directed him to receive chiropractic services at plaintiff’s own expense.

The chiropractor recommended he seek medical care and plaintiff’s sister encouraged him to file a workers’ compensation claim. When plaintiff told his supervisor, the supervisor reportedly responded it was “too late” to receive workers’ compensation benefits (this was about six weeks after the injury), but an injury report was completed and filed with the state workers’ compensation division the same day.

Plaintiff went to an urgent care clinic which referred him to a family doctor who in turn started him on physical therapy. During that time, plaintiff continued to work full time. During that time, plaintiff alleges his employer started to find ways to cut his pay by assigning him to work that was non-paying.

The state workers’ compensation division accepted the late filing and deemed the injury compensable. A week later, his supervisor fired him and told him he was authorized to do so and didn’t have to give a reason. Coincidentally, plaintiff had a doctors’ appointment the very same day. His doctor certified him temporarily totally disabled based on a herniated lumbar disc.

His employer objected to this finding and requested an administrative hearing. At that time, defendant presented evidence critical of plaintiff’s performance on the job, saying he mismatched pain colors and took too long to blend colors. There was no indication plaintiff was given notification of these issues, as he did not sign the corrective actions and there was no indication he refused to sign.

The hearing officer awarded plaintiff temporary total disability benefits, underwent surgery and continued physical therapy. He reached maximum medical improvement and was assigned a 9 percent permanent partial impairment rating. Although this limited his ability to do the same job he’d done before, he was working with a vocational rehabilitation specialist for help in re-entering the workforce.

Plaintiff then sued his former employer, alleging wrongful termination as a form of retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim. Employer denied his assertions.

Trial court granted a defense motion for summary judgment, finding plaintiff failed to show his termination was consequent to his filing a workers’ compensation claim. Plaintiff appealed, and the state supreme court reversed and remanded.

Justices with the high court ruled the lower court had applied the wrong test to determine whether plaintiff met the minimum proof requirements necessary to proceed to trial. When viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiff, there were genuine issues of material fact that indicate a jury could potentially find in his favor. Those included:

  • He was fired eight days after filing a workers’ compensation claim.
  • His supervisor steered him away from filing a workers’ compensation claim, first by telling him to seek treatment on his own and then by later telling him it was too late to file.
  • His supervisor assigned him to unfavorable, less lucrative work after he filed the claim.
  • His employer refused to give a reason for the termination.

All of this meant the proof burden shifted to the employer to rebut employee’s claim, but the employer failed to do this, considering the counseling forms are suspicious and the he was never informed of them until after he filed for benefits.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
King v. Cowboy Dodge, Inc., Sept. 23, 2015, Wyoming Suprem Court

More Blog Entries:
Fairchild v. Kentucky Fried Chicken – Workplace Slip-and-Fall, Oct. 8, 2015, Greensboro Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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