Over the years, our courts have struggled with the standards to be applied in cases of this nature. It is no secret–employment claims have become more prevalent in our litigious world. Employment law is ever evolving, and most litigators in this area spend significant time tracking cases and legislation to be sure that the advice they provide is based on the most current law and regulations that apply. Because our state legislature has recently adopted a new law that governs these claims, this article is intended to alert employers of the new paradigm that now controls how retaliation claims in the worker’s compensation arena will be analyzed by our courts.
The Exclusive Cause Test (Old Law):
Employers are prohibited from discharging or discriminating against employees who exercise their rights under the Missouri workers’ compensation law. Since at least 1984, the Missouri Supreme Court held that an employee who files a lawsuit claiming he was retaliated against in violation of the workers’ comp law must prove the exercise of his rights (e.g., by filing a claim for benefits or reporting a covered injury) was the “exclusive” cause for his termination or other adverse employment action.
The language in the Missouri jury instruction requiring proof that an employee’s workers’ comp activity was the exclusive cause of the employer’s action is no longer binding law. Section 287.780 of our Missouri Statutes once provided, “No employer or agent shall discharge or in any way discriminate against any employee for exercising any of his rights under this chapter.”
The Missouri Supreme Court’s 1984 ruling in Hansome v. Northwestern Cooperage Co., laid out the elements an employee must prove to recover for retaliatory discharge under the old workers’ comp law:
(1) His status as an employee of the company at the time of the injury;
(2) His exercise of a right granted by the workers’ comp law (Chapter 287);
(3) The employer’s discharge or discrimination against him; and
(4) An exclusive causal relationship between his action and the employer’s actions.
A 1998 Missouri Supreme Court decision confirmed the exclusive cause standard in workers’ comp retaliation cases, but this ruling was again revisited in 2014 and overturned.
The 2014 Missouri Supreme Court Case “Contributing Factor” Test (Overturned by Statute):
In 2014, our Missouri Supreme Court adopted a new test in worker’s compensation retaliation cases. That standard was referred to as the “contributing factor” standard. The Court explained:
“Taking into account the statutory language and this Court’s precedent in other discrimination cases, this Court holds that the “contributing factor” standard should apply to causes of action that arise pursuant to section 287.780. Adopting the “contributing factor” standard serves two purposes. First, the legislature’s use of the phrase, “in any way,” is consistent with this Court’s analysis of the “contributory factor” language articulated in Daugherty, Hill, and Fleshner. Therefore, application of the “contributory factor” standard fulfills the purpose of the statute, which is to prohibit employers from discharging or in any way discriminating against an employee for exercising his or her rights under chapter 287. Second, the standard now aligns workers’ compensation discrimination with other Missouri employment discrimination laws.
Under this decision, a claimant must show that the filing of the workers’ compensation claim was a contributing factor to the Employer’s decision to discharge him–not the exclusive factor.
TEMPLEMIRE v. W & M WELDING, INC., 433 S.W.3d 371 (Mo. banc 2014);
The New Paradigm–Motivating Factor Test:
In response to the 2014 decision above, our legislature spoke loud and clear on the new standard that must be applied in worker’s compensation retaliation cases. Effective August 28, 2017, our new law provides:
287.780. Discharge or discrimination because of exercising compensation rights prohibited–civil action for damages
No employer or agent shall discharge or discriminate against any employee for exercising any of his or her rights under this chapter when the exercising of such rights is the motivating factor in the discharge or discrimination. Any employee who has been discharged or discriminated against in such manner shall have a civil action for damages against his or her employer. For purposes of this section, “motivating factor” shall mean that the employee’s exercise of his or her rights under this chapter actually played a role in the discharge or discrimination and had a determinative influence on the discharge or discrimination.
(R.S.1939, § 3725. Amended by L.1973, H.B. No. 79, p. 401, § 1; L.2017, S.B. No. 66, § A, eff. Aug. 28, 2017.)
Now, employers may escape liability under this new standard by demonstrating that an employee’s worker’s compensation claim was not the “motivating factor” in the decision to terminate employment. This is a tougher standard for employees to meet indeed, but one thing is for certain–it will be tested.
If you have any questions or would like to visit in greater detail with us at CECB on employment law matters, we are ready to provide you the guidance you need in this evolving area of the law.
Christiaan D. Horton