Employees who are injured on the job in North Carolina are entitled to receive workers’ compensation benefits. But that doesn’t mean employers are thrilled to pay out those costs. In turn, we see many workers’ compensation claims intersect with employment lawsuits because employers respond to a filing with retaliation, which is illegal.
These kinds of cases are complicated because North Carolina operates under the at-will employment doctrine, which generally means that most employees can be terminated from their job at any time and for any reason. However, there are some statutory and common law exceptions. One of the common law exceptions to at-will employment is the public policy exception. This holds that an employer can’t fire a worker for a reason that runs contrary to public policy. Workers’ compensation benefits are one branch of public policy because state law supports an employee’s right to collect workers’ compensation benefits. Therefore, an employer who retaliates against a worker for invoking that right – i.e., filing a workers’ compensation claim – would be acting contrary to public policy.
There is also a state statute, N.C.G.S. 95-240, better known as the Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act, that stipulates a worker can’t be fired or discriminated against in retaliation for certain activities performed in good faith. That includes filing a claim, initiating an investigation or providing information or testimony with regard to workers’ compensation.
Similarly, using the federal Family and Medical Leave Act time while off work for a work-related injury is considered protected activity as well. That doesn’t necessarily stop employers from retaliating for its use. In other cases, employers may fail to inform workers of their FMLA rights, which they are required by the Department of Labor to do.
There is no federal law that protects against retaliation for workers’ compensation claims, but these state statutes do extend protections to workers. Because it can be tempting for employers to lash out at workers who file work injury claims – especially those likely to be costly for the company – it’s important for workers to seek legal protection. By having a workers’ compensation lawyer involved in the process early on, one can ensure that any form of retaliation is carefully documented and preserved, should there be a need for future employment litigation. Often, just the presence of a workers’ compensation lawyer on a case is enough for an employer to make sure the worker’s rights are respected.
Generally, a worker cannot sue an employer for injuries that are covered by workers’ compensation, even if the employer was negligent in causing the accident or condition that resulted in injury or illness. This is known as the exclusivity rule. However, an employment lawsuit stemming from retaliation is a completely separate cause of action, and is not barred by the exclusivity rule.
There are a fair number of employers who are not familiar with their obligations and worker protections that are involved when a worker files a workers’ compensation claim. This can be especially problematic when workers’ compensation claims are handled by an outside company or by a number of different departments within the company, such as finance, risk management, legal and human resources.
Some of these cases arise when companies issue job offer letters to workers who are ready to return to work, based on the conclusions of the independent medical doctor. However, these “independent” doctors typically reach conclusions that are favorable to the employer, which prompts worker challenges. Companies often respond by suspending workers’ compensation benefits or firing the worker for refusal to return to work, but they fail to understand that this refusal is not automatically a basis for adverse action, particularly if the worker still has FMLA time to use.
Other claims stem from failure to abide by the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities – including those disabilities that were sustained in a work-related accident. One form of reasonable accommodation may be additional leave beyond the 12 weeks required by FMLA.
Consulting with an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer to handle your claim will help to ensure your rights and interests are protected now and in the future.
Contact the Carolina workers’ compensation lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
When a Workers’ Comp Case Turns Into a Minefield of Litigation, Nov. 7, 2017, By Lauri A. Kavulich, The Legal Intelligencer
More Blog Entries:
Report: Construction Workers at High Risk of Sprains and Strains, Jan. 27, 2017, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog