The Ohio Supreme Court recently held that employees need not prove they were actually injured on the job to prevail in a retaliation claim.
Employers should already be aware that, under Ohio law, they may not discharge or take punitive action against an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim after sustaining an injury at work. The Ohio Supreme Court recently issued a decision that will deter employers from disciplining even employees who file bogus workers’ compensation claims. In Onderko v. Sierra Lobo, Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-5027, the Court held that a Plaintiff in a retaliatory discharge claim is not required to prove that he or she was injured on the job, but only that he or she was discharged for filing a workers’ compensation claim.
In the Onderko case, the employee had been denied workers’ compensation benefits because the Industrial Commission found that he was actually injured outside of work, not on the job. After his claim was denied, his employer terminated him for his deceptive attempt to get workers’ compensation benefits for a non-work-related injury. The employee then sued his employer for retaliatory discharge.
It was undisputed that the employee had been fired for filing the invalid workers’ compensation claim. The employer argued that, because the employee’s claim had been denied, the employee could not prevail in a retaliation claim as a matter of law. The Supreme Court disagreed, clarifying that a retaliation claim requires only that the employee prove that he was discharged for filing a workers’ compensation claim for a work-related injury and that proof that a work-related injury actually occurred is not necessary.
The dissent warned of the implication of the Court’s decision, stating:
A court should not construe the statute in a manner to encourage fraudulent claims for workers’ compensation benefits, and here, the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation determined that there was no workplace injury. The evidence therefore supports the trial court finding that Sierra Lobo, Inc., fired Onderko for filing a fraudulent claim.
The majority clarified that its holding does not suggest that a fraudulent or false claim for workers’ compensation may be pursued without penalty and that such conduct still may provide grounds for termination. The filing of a false claim is a crime in Ohio. Whether fraud is valid defense to a retaliation claim, however, was not specifically addressed by the Court. In this case, the employer certainly felt that the claim was deceptive.
Onderko is one of a series of cases that have broadened the strike zone for retaliation plaintiffs. The case instructs employers to use caution when disciplining or discharging an employee who has filed an unsuccessful workers’ compensation claim, even where the claim appears to be bogus. To take such adverse action, the employer must have a legitimate non-retaliatory reason unrelated to the employee’s exercise of his or her rights under the workers’ compensation statutes.