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Employers Beware: An Employee's Attempt to Obtain Workers' Compensation Benefits Will Qualify as a Protected Activity under Florida's Retaliation Statute

A Florida Appellate Court recently held that the fact that an employee does not file a formal claim for workers’ compensation benefits until after the employee is terminated does not automatically preclude employee’s claim for retaliatory discharge.

In this case, the employee was injured while performing workplace duties. Employee notified the employer of the injury and later informed the employer that he was having difficulty receiving follow-up treatment for his injuries. The employer terminated the employee less than two weeks after the work-related injury.

The parties presented conflicting reasons for the employee’s termination. The employer testified that the employee was terminated because he was involved in an incident with a co-worker wherein the employee became angry and threatened the co-worker. A manager had to diffuse the situation and after the employee admitted to making the threat, the manager terminated the employee and explained that the employee was being terminated as a result of the incident and not because of his injury or seeking workers’ compensation benefits. The employee denied that he threatened a co-worker and denied that he admitted to threatening the co-worker. The employee claimed that the co-workers were lying about the incident and that the manger who terminated him did not give him a reason for his termination.

After his termination, the employee filed a claim for retaliatory discharge under Fla. Stat. §440.205 and a petition for workers’ compensation benefits. The employer moved for summary judgment arguing that the employee could not establish a prima facie case of retaliation because his termination was not casually related to his workers’ compensation claim. The employer specifically argued that the employee’s termination occurred before he had filed a petition for workers’ compensation benefits and that they had a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for terminating the employee. The trial court agreed with the employer and granted summary judgment.

The employee appealed and the Fourth District Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial court. The Court found that the trial court erred because it did not consider whether the employee’s actions constituted an “attempt to claim compensation” as required by the statute. The Court further found that the evidence showed that the employee had sought workers’ compensation benefits by going to the hospital the day of the injury and notifying his employer of the injury and his difficulty in obtaining follow-up care. Importantly, the Court stated that if the trial court’s ruling was allowed to stand, it would effectively allow an employer to circumvent the statute by terminating an employee immediately after a workplace injury before an employee even has a chance to file a claim for benefits.

If you are an employer and you are concerned about employment related issues such as retaliatory discharge, discrimination, hostile work environment, and workers’ compensation claims, Rosenthal Law Group is available to offer guidance and representation to assist you in your matter.