There are occasions when there is an overlap between employment disability discrimination and workers compensation claims. This situation arises when an employee is injured on the job, files a workers’ compensation claim and then the employer takes an adverse action against the employee, such as the termination of employment. In Canfield v. Movie Tavern, Inc., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173877 (E. D. Pa. December 12, 2013) (Baylson, J.), the Court addressed these overlapping issues and held that the employee could go forward with disability discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the PHRA, as well as a claim that the employee was unlawfully terminated in retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim. In Canfield, the Plaintiff was employed for 11 months as a Kitchen Manager, injured his back at work, sought out medical treatment, and was ordered to take several days off from work. Eventually, the employee was diagnosed as having a herniated disc in his lower back. He was placed on a leave of absence, began receiving workers’ compensation benefits then eventually was cleared to return to work without restrictions. Within days of returning to work, the Plaintiff re-aggravated his injury and was again restricted to light duty. Plaintiff informed the employer of his re-injury and that he would be seeking treatment. The employer was again unable to accommodate these restrictions, and informed Plaintiff’s workers’ compensation case manager of its inability to accommodate. Plaintiff’s workers’ compensation benefits were then reinstated. The next day, Plaintiff attended a meeting and was fired. The reason given for his termination was that he had discriminated against Defendant’s Hispanic employees. Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant employer’s reason for firing him is a fabrication and pretext, and that he was actually fired because of his disability and his claims for workers’ compensation.
In situations where there is both an on the job injury and an adverse employment action, it is critical that a qualified employment law attorney be consulted by the attorney handling the workers compensation claim soon as possible so that the employee does not inadvertently waive and release his rights. In Canfield, the Defendant argued that Plaintiff’s execution of a Compromise and Release in the workers compensation proceeding waived his right to pursue a disability discrimination claim against the Defendant employer based on the same workplace injury. The Court found that while a Compromise and Release may waive a discrimination claim, the issue turns on an examination of the specific language of the Release. In Canfield, the language in the Release was not overly expansive and was limited to providing that the Release “resolves any and all workers’ compensation claims, including but not limited to scarring and specific loss, arising out of the claimant’s employment with Movie Tavern Partner’s”; there was no language releasing ADA or PHRA claims and no general, all-encompassing release language. Consequently, the Court held that there was no Release of the disability discrimination claim. Keep in mind that workers compensation insurance carriers often use much broader Release language which could be deemed to waive a separate disability claim, thus, the Release language much be carefully scrutinized.
As to the ADA claim, the Court noted that it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee on the basis of his disability and that in order to state a valid claim under the ADA, a plaintiff employee must establish that he (1) has a disability; (2) is qualified to perform the job; and (3) has suffered adverse employment action because of that disability. The Court held that the Plaintiff employee adequately plead a disability, referring to the language of the Americans with Disability Amendments Act ( ADAAA) and holding that a herniated disc sustained at work, in addition to prior herniated discs, spinal osteoarthritis, and degenerative disc disease, constitutes a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Further, the Court noted that EEOC regulations under the ADAA interpreting the phrase “substantially limits” recognize an impairment that can be classified as transient or lasting fewer than six months. As a result, the Court held that Defendant’s claim of the transient nature of Plaintiff’s injuries is not relevant. In addition, the Court held that since the Plaintiff’s doctors restricted him from performing work that required him to bend over, twist his torso, or lift any weight over ten pounds and under the ADAAA “lifting and bending” are specifically referenced as major life activities. The Plaintiff alleged an impairment that is “substantially limiting” and he could move forward with his claim under the ADA.
In Canfield, the Court also found that the Plaintiff employee could go forward with his claim for unlawful retaliation under Pennsylvania law, which provides that an at-will employee may not be discharged in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim, a claim first recognized by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Shick v. Shirley Lumber, 552 Pa. 590, 604 (1998). In such a claim, a plaintiff must establish the following elements: (1) the employee engaged in activity protected by filing a worker’s compensation claim, (2) the employee suffered an adverse employment action, in the form of the termination of his employment and (3) a causal link between the employee’s protected activity and the employer’s adverse action. The third element, causation, can be established by alleging an unusually suggestive proximity in time between the protected activity and the adverse action. Thus, in Canfield the Court found that employee plausibly alleged that the gap between his protected activity, filing/re-filing of a workers compensation claim, and being terminated, was one day which is sufficient to plead causation.
For more information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, Disability Discrimination, wrongful termination for pursuing a workers’ compensation claim, and Abramson Employment Law see http://www.job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-1126511.html, http://www.job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-2122063.html