The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that plaintiffs claiming workers' compensation retaliation need only prove that their workers' compensation claims were a "contributing factor" to any adverse employment action. The April 15, 2014 decision upsets thirty years of precedent, with significant implications for Missouri employers. Previously, plaintiffs were required to establish an "exclusive causal connection" between exercising their rights under Missouri's workers' compensation statute and any subsequent adverse actions by their employers. The Court has now made it easier for employees to establish workers' compensation retaliation cases against employers. The case is Templemire v. W&M Welding, Inc., No. SC 93132, 2014 WL 1464574, --- S.W.3d --- (Apr. 15, 2014).
In Templemire, the plaintiff severely injured his foot on the job and was subject to various injury-related restrictions when he returned to work. About ten months after the plaintiff's return, when he was still on light duty, the employer discharged him. The employer presented evidence that the plaintiff had ignored instructions and was insubordinate. The plaintiff countered this with evidence that the employer's owner referred to injured workers as "whiners," yelled at the plaintiff because of his injury, and failed to follow a progressive discipline policy when discharging the plaintiff. The jury found that the plaintiff had not established his workers' compensation claim was the exclusive factor behind the employer's decision to terminate him.
The Missouri Supreme Court, on transfer from the court of appeals, reversed the judgment of the trial court. In so doing, the Court abandoned the exclusive causation standard that employers and employees had relied upon as the law since 1984, when it was first articulated in Hansome v. Northwestern Cooperage Co. After discussing the language of the statute and other interpretive cases, the Court determined that the holding in Hansome was "clearly erroneous," an "aberration," and "'appears to be plucked out of thin air' with no support in the caselaw or statutory interpretation." The Court then decided that a "contributing factor" causation standard should apply to workers' compensation retaliation claims. In support of this radical change, the Court stated that the new standard is consistent with the statutory language and also "aligns workers' compensation discrimination with other Missouri employment discrimination laws." The Court specifically referenced Daugherty v. City of Maryland Heights and Hill v. Ford Motor Co., two of its own recent cases where it applied a "contributing factor" analysis to discrimination and retaliation claims under the Missouri Human Rights Act.
Judge Fischer, in dissent, attacked the majority's disregard for established law. After noting that the exclusive causation standard was re-affirmed by the Court in 1998, Judge Fischer concluded that the majority's decision ignored the principle of stare decisis and the will of the legislature. In 2005, the legislature enacted sweeping amendments to the workers' compensation statute and specifically abrogated the judicially approved causation standard for accidental injury awards. The legislature made no changes to the anti-retaliation section of the statute.
Tuesday's decision has far-reaching implications for Missouri employers. In order to recover for retaliation under the statute, plaintiffs now must only show that the filing of their workers' compensation claim(s) contributed to the employer's decision to take a subsequent adverse employment action. Polsinelli's Labor and Employment attorneys can work with you to determine the effects of the Templemire decision on your business, and how best to deal with any adverse consequences.