- Significant Decisions for Employers in Retaliatory Discharge Case
- June 5, 2003 | Author: Sandra K. Vinik
- Law Firm: Sirote & Permutt, P.C. - Birmingham Office
On December 6, 2002 the Alabama Supreme offered Alabama employers a significant end-of-year bonus by increasing the employee's burden of proof in cases alleging retaliatory discharge for claiming Workers' Compensation benefits. The Court's decision in Alabama Power Co. v. Aldridge, No. 1010969 (Ala. Dec. 6, 2002) means that in order to succeed on a claim for retaliatory discharge, the employee must prove that the sole reason for his/her discharge was that the employee filed a Workers' Compensation claim. In this opinion, eight of the nine justices reversed a $500,00 jury verdict awarded to a former employee of Alabama Power, who was discharged after flagrant and repeated unauthorized absenteeism. Notably, the only dissent was authored by Chief Justice Roy Moore.
The saga began in May 1996, when the plaintiff/employee, Aldridge, claimed that he injured his neck on the job while employed by Alabama Power. The power company denied his claim for workers' compensation benefits and he filed a suit in the same year.
The plaintiff returned to work for three days in January 1997, but he complained that he was unable to work on account of pain. He applied for and received long-term disability benefits. Aldridge then started his own business, which failed in the same year. In November 1997, Aldridge accepted a job as a meter reader with Alabama Power. He again worked for three days, and then claimed that he had suffered a knee injury while walking to read a meter. During the period that he was off work, Aldridge began working part time for another employer, but he did not disclose the second job to Alabama Power.
In January 1998, Aldridge returned to work at the power company, but was habitually tardy or absent, submitting a variety of excuses for his absences, including pain from his knee injury. The "last straw" occurred in February 1998, when Aldridge left a message at Alabama Power stating that a storm had damaged his roof, and that he had to cover the roof before the contents of his house were ruined.
When attempting to verify the excuse, Alabama Power found that the roof had four missing shingles. Aldridge offered a series of inconsistent explanations for his absence. During the course of the investigation which followed, Alabama Power discovered that Aldridge had been employed at a second job. The power company requested Aldridge to sign a release to determine whether he had been working on his second job when he was supposed to have been working at the power company. Aldridge refused to sign the release. He was fired for failing to properly report his absences, making misrepresentations, and for absenteeism.
Aldridge brought suit claiming that he had been fired in retaliation for asserting his Workers' Compensation claims. He also alleged that the power company had attempted to "set him up" by subjecting him to close scrutiny and conducting multiple investigations. Despite the testimony regarding Aldridge's work record, the jury apparently sympathized with him and returned a verdict in favor of Aldridge for $250,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages.
On appeal the Alabama Supreme court reversed the jury verdict, based on the language of the retaliation statute which prohibits discharging an employee "solely " because the employee has made a claim for workers' compensation benefits. The court was not impressed by the claim that Aldridge had been "set up," stating that the fact that close scrutiny was necessary should not shield him from the consequences of his own wrongdoing. Finally, the court stated that if it is clear to the court that retaliation is not the sole basis for the discharge, it is appropriate for the court to grant judgment for the employer as a matter of law.
The case illustrates that lawsuits alleging retaliatory discharge for applying for Workers' Compensation benefits are particularly dangerous. Despite Aldridge's repeated violations of company policy, the jury sympathized with him and awarded substantial damages. The case also highlights the importance of meticulous documentation of the employee's file, and, in appropriate cases, of instituting surveillance.