WORKERS’ COMPENSATION DISCRIMINATION: “I WANT TO TRANSFER” DOESN’T MEAN “I QUIT”

Last month, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia did something that it rarely does, and the fact that it took this very uncommon action in an employment case should get the attention of employers everywhere.

In Huggins v. City of Westover Sanitary Sewer Board, Plaintiff William Huggins – not to be confused with the beloved WVU basketball coach of the same name, Bob Huggins – was fired from his job as a Sewer Board field supervisor after an interesting chain of events kick-started by a simple letter he sent to his employer.

In that letter, sent in October, 2008, Huggins explained that, due to health concerns caused by job-related stress, he “would like to transfer to work [a different job] and leave [his] position in the Sewer Department.”  Almost two weeks after submitting the letter, Huggins suffered a work-related injury.  He was approved for workers’ compensation benefits and, because of the compensable injury, took a leave of absence from his job.

In November 2008 – 16 days after the accident – Huggins’ employer, the Sewer Board, held a board meeting at which it voted to act on the “resignation” portion of Huggins’ letter.  Although Huggins’ employment was terminated immediately, he didn’t find out about the termination until over a month later, when he received a notice regarding the cessation of his health insurance benefits.  At the time, Huggins still off of work receiving TTD benefits because of the compensable injury he suffered less than two months earlier.

Subsequently, Huggins sued his former employer for workers’ compensation discrimination.  The trial court ultimately determined that, through his October 2008 letter, Huggins had voluntarily resigned from his job in order to be available for a transfer.  On appeal, however, West Virginia’s Supreme Court disagreed.

The state Supreme Court concluded that Huggins never intended to resign, pointing out that Huggins’s letter didn’t contain language such as “resignation.”  The court also reasoned – quite obviously – that had Huggins intended for his October 2008 letter to be treated as a resignation, (1) he would not have been working two weeks later on the date of his injury, and (2) there would have been no need for the Sewer Board to hold a vote to accept the purported resignation.

Because of these conclusions, the state Supreme Court also not surprisingly concluded that the Sewer Board “engaged in a discriminatory practice when they decided to terminate . . . Huggins, an injured employee, while he was off work due to a compensable injury and was receiving [TTD] benefits.”  In fact, the Supreme Court was so taken aback by the facts of the case, the ridiculousness of the Sewer Board’s decision-making, and the trial court’s agreement with the propriety of the employer’s determination, that it actually remanded the case back to the Circuit Court and ordered it to enter partial judgment in favor of Huggins!

So, what can we learn from Huggins?  For starters, how about these important teaching points: (1) an employee’s request that he wants to leave one position or job or department and transfer to another doesn’t mean that he or she quits; and (2) when in doubt about an employee’s intentions, communicate with your employee.

Additionally, Huggins serves as a reminder that employers should exercise extreme caution when making decisions that adversely impact employees who have filed for or are receiving workers’ compensation benefits.  Courts in West Virginia have always come down hard on discrimination against employees who have suffered work injuries, and that’s the case in many other states, as well.  Employers that aren’t wary of that reality can find themselves taking on considerable legal risk.

Matt Hansberry focuses his practice in the areas of employment litigation and ski-industry defense. Mr. Hansberry has defended companies and management in both federal court and state court cases. He has also defended employers before the West Virginia Human Rights Commission.
 
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