On December 20, 2007, the Supreme Court of Ohio released its decision in Bickers v. Western & Southern Life Insurance Company, which expressly limits the Court’s previous holding in Coolidge v. Riverdale Local School District. In Coolidge, the Supreme Court held that an employer could not terminate an employee who was receiving temporary total disability compensation on the basis of absenteeism or inability to work, when the absence or inability to work is directly related to an allowed medical condition in his or her workers’ compensation claim. 

As a result of the Coolidge decision, many Ohio employers were frustrated in their efforts to manage production needs because they could not terminate and replace employees who had been off work for significant periods of time. In addition, Ohio employers complained that the Coolidge decision created an incentive for employees to delay their return to work following injuries since their jobs were protected while they were out. The Bickers decision, which for the vast majority of situations overrules Coolidge, represents a key victory for Ohio employers.

Facts in Bickers

In 1994, Shelley Bickers was injured in the course of her employment with Western & Southern Life Insurance Company. Bickers filed a workers’ compensation claim that allowed for multiple medical conditions. As a result of her injuries, she was unable to work for several periods of time. During these periods, Western & Southern did not provide her with a position within her medical restrictions. The company then terminated Bickers in 2002 while she was still receiving temporary total disability benefits.

Relying on the Supreme Court’s 2003 Coolidge decision, Bickers filed a lawsuit against Western & Southern alleging that she was wrongfully discharged in violation of public policy. Western & Southern’s motion to dismiss was granted by the trial court, but the court of appeals reversed the dismissal, finding that the case was governed by the principles decided in Coolidge. The company appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, which took the opportunity to limit Coolidge’s reach.

The Supreme Court Limits the Holding of Coolidge

In Coolidge, a public school teacher was discharged while away from work due to a work-related injury and while receiving temporary total disability benefits. The teacher in Coolidge was not an at-will employee but was employed under a contract governed by R.C. 3319.16, which protected her from termination without “good and just cause.”

The Coolidge Court agreed with the teacher’s argument that the “good and just cause” provision protected her from being discharged solely as a result of her absence due to her work-related injury. After that case was decided, many lower courts in Ohio, relying on very general language in the Coolidge decision, interpreted Coolidge as an expansion of the public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine. The Bickers decision, citing Porter Wright’s Ohio Employment Practices Law treatise, acknowledged that many commentators expressed concerns about the broad interpretations of Coolidge

The Supreme Court of Ohio found in Bickers that, unlike the teacher in Coolidge, Bickers was an at-will employee and was not protected by the “good and just cause” provision of R.C. 3319.16. The Court therefore limited Coolidge to holding “that terminating a teacher for absences due to a work-related injury while the teacher is receiving workers’ compensation benefits is a termination without ‘just cause’ under R.C. 3319.16.” The Court then found that, “[b]ecause Bickers is not a teacher protected by a contract covered by R.C. 3319.16, she is not entitled to the benefit of the holding in Coolidge and may not assert a wrongful-discharge claim in reliance on Coolidge.” The Court reversed the court of appeals’ decision and held that Coolidge did not create a cause of action for an at-will employee who is terminated for non-retaliatory reasons while receiving workers’ compensation benefits.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that the legislature had concluded that it should only prohibit terminations made in retaliation for pursuing workers’ compensation claims. Therefore, the Court, in essence, refused to create common law that would expand those prohibitions to include terminations based solely on the employee’s attendance.

Importance of the Bickers Holding

The Supreme Court’s decision in Bickers represents a key victory for Ohio employers because it reduces the uncertainty that Coolidge created. As a result of this decision, at-will employees who are terminated while receiving temporary total disability benefits may not succeed on claims of wrongful termination in violation of public policy so long as the termination is not in retaliation for pursuing a workers’ compensation claim. Subject to reasonable accommodation obligations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, Ohio employers again are free to enforce neutral maximum medical-leave policies with respect to all employees. Just as importantly, the remedies available under Ohio’s workers’ compensation retaliation statute are once again limited to equitable relief such as reinstatement and back pay rather than compensatory and punitive damages.  

Ohio employers should stay tuned – it is expected that legislation will be introduced to expand either the scope or the remedies available under the statute.