Complete inability to work, not discrimination, triggers termination
Case name: Lavoie v. Re-Harvest, Inc., et al., No. WCB-08-60 (Maine 05/12/09).
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court vacated a finding by a Workers' Compensation Board hearing officer that the employer engaged in discrimination when it terminated a manager who was unable to perform any work for weeks following his work injury.
What it means: The proximity in time between the assertion of a claim for workers' comp benefits and an employee's termination may be evidence of discriminatory intent. However, when the employee cannot perform any work functions for weeks after the injury, and there is no evidence that the employee's health is likely to change in the near future, an employer is not required to maintain the nonworking employee on its employment rolls indefinitely.
A project manager for a recycling and waste management company was seriously injured when he slipped off a running board and fell, aggravating his preexisting degenerative back conditions. He was unable to work even in a light-duty capacity for almost four weeks when the company terminated him. The company paid total incapacity benefits from the date of his termination forward. The manager alleged he was terminated for exercising his rights under the Workers' Compensation Act.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court reasoned that an employee's inability to perform the essential functions of the job is a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for termination. The court pointed out that the employer is not required to keep an employee on the books indefinitely when the employee can no longer meet his job requirements. It rejected the hearing officer's finding that the manager's termination was discriminatory relative to other employees since it was based on his status as an injured worker.
The court found that even though there was a short time period between the injury and the termination, the manager did not claim to have a recoverable work capacity and, in fact, had no work capacity for many months after the injury. It reasoned that the employer had otherwise complied with the act and timely paid benefits. The court vacated the hearing officer's decision to remedy the discrimination.
June 22, 2009
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