Ohio Supreme Court Alters the Strict Statutory Requirement for Employees to Notify Their Employer of a Workers’ Compensation Retaliatory Discharge Claim
Ohio’s Workers’ Compensation Act (R.C. 4123.90) prohibits an employer from discharging or taking any other adverse employment action against an employee because the employee filed a workers’ compensation claim or participated in a proceeding under the act.
Further, the Act states that no workers’ compensation retaliation claim may be maintained against an employer unless the employer receives written notice of the alleged violation of the statute from the employee within 90 days immediately following the discharge.
However, the Ohio Supreme Court recently recognized a limited exception to the general rule that a discharged employee must notify his former employer within 90 days of termination of the employee’s intent to file a retaliatory discharge lawsuit under Ohio’s workers’ compensation act (R.C. 4123.90). In Lawrence v. Youngstown, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-4247 (Sept. 20, 2012), the Supreme Court resolved a conflict that had existed among Ohio’s appellate courts, holding that courts may delay the running of the 90-day notification period if the employee did not know that he had been discharged “within a reasonable time” after the employment action.
FACTS OF LAWRENCE
Keith Lawrence, a City of Youngstown employee, was suspended from his job duties, without pay, on January 7, 2007. The City placed a notice in Lawrence’s personnel file indicating he had been terminated on January 9, 2007. A letter supposedly was sent to Lawrence on that same date informing him that he had been terminated and a copy of that letter was in his personnel file. The letter was not sent to Lawrence by certified mail or given to him in person. Subsequently, Lawrence denied receiving the January 9 letter and claimed he did not learn of the termination until February 19, 2007. On April 17, 2007, Lawrence’s attorney sent the City a letter, notifying the City of Lawrence’s intent to file suit alleging his termination was retaliation for his having filed workers’ compensation claims while employed with the City.
The lower court granted summary judgment to the City, holding that the 90-day notification period began to run on January 9, 2007, and ended on April 9, 2007. Thus, Lawrence’s notification of his intent to sue was eight days late and untimely. The appellate court affirmed the decision of the trial court, but also certified that its decision on the issue was in conflict with other appellate courts.
SUPREME COURT HOLDING
A majority of the Ohio Supreme Court adopted a limited exception to the 90-day employer-notice provision that would be “in keeping with the statute’s purpose.” Writing for the majority, Justice Robert R. Cupp noted that a general provision of the workers’ compensation statute (R.C. 4123.95) demands that the law “shall be liberally construed in favor of employees.”
Justice Cupp wrote:
R.C. 4123.90, when viewed in conjunction with R.C. 4123.95 and read in pari materia [together], places an implicit affirmative responsibility on an employer to provide its employee notice of the employee’s discharge within a reasonable time after the discharge occurs in order to avoid impeding the discharged employee’s 90-day notification obligation under R.C. 4123.90. [Emphasis added.] A reasonable time for an employer to inform an employee of a discharge is an inquiry dependent on the facts of each situation. A delay of several days would not prevent the 90-day period for the employer to receive notification from the employee from commencing to run on the discharge date.
Under the analysis of the Court, as long as the employer communicated the discharge to the employee (e.g., by personal notification, hand delivery of notice, or a certified letter) within a reasonable time, the 90-day period still would begin to run on the actual discharge date.
Justice Cupp stated further:
Prerequisites for this exception are that an employee does not become aware of the fact of his discharge within a reasonable time after the discharge occurs and could not have learned of the discharge within a reasonable time in the exercise of due diligence. When those prerequisites are met, the 90-day time period for the employer to receive written notice of the employee’s claim that the discharge violated R.C. 4123.90 commences on the earlier of the date that the employee becomes aware of the discharge or the date the employee should have become aware of the discharge.
As to the Lawrence case itself, the Court held that because the employer could not prove Lawrence was notified of his termination within a reasonable time, the letter alleging retaliatory discharge from Lawrence’s attorney to the employer was timely.
Justice Terrence O’Donnell dissented, finding the majority and concurring opinions “stretch far to perform the work of the General Assembly….” He said a plain reading of the statute would call for upholding summary judgment for the employer.
IMPACT OF RULING
As a result of this ruling, employers should pay careful attention to the process by which they notify employees that they have been terminated, particularly absent employees or those employees who allegedly have abandoned their jobs. A prudent employer will send such notification by certified mail or hand delivery to insure that there is some proof that the employee actually received the notice of termination.