Ohio Supreme Court limits Coolidge decision to its facts: A win for employers’ rights

Kegler Brown E-mployment Alert

Since its release in 2003, the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in Coolidge v. Riverdale Local School Dist., has been a constant headache for employers throughout the state. The decision was seen as a “Get Out of Jail Free Card”. As you are all probably aware, Coolidge held that an employer could not terminate an employee receiving temporary total benefits through the workers compensation fund for absences or inability to work that related to the injury for which the employee was receiving benefits. This Coolidge decision left employers in the untenable position of having an employee who could not work, often for long periods of time, who also could not be permanently replaced. The practical result was something akin to indefinite leave for certain employees.

I am happy to report that, yesterday, employers throughout the state got relief from the Coolidge headache in the form of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bickers v. W. & S. Life Ins. Co.

The Case
The Plaintiff, Shelly Bickers, was an at-will employee with Western & Southern Life Insurance Company. Ms. Bickers was injured in the course of her employment and filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. The claim was allowed for a number of conditions. Following her injury, Bickers experienced periods where she was unable to work. These periods of inability to work were directly related to the allowed conditions in her workers’ compensation claim and, as a result, she received temporary total disability benefits. Eventually, Bickers’ employment was terminated. At the time of her termination, Bickers was receiving temporary total disability benefits. Bickers sued Western and Southern Life claiming her termination violated public policy, specifically the public policy enunciated in Coolidge.

The Ruling
In a 5-2 decision, the Court limited the Coolidge decision to its facts and held that an at-will employee has no claim for violation of public policy when the employee is terminated while receiving workers' compensation benefits. The Court stated:

“We hold that Coolidge is limited to considerations of “good and just cause” for termination under R.C. 3319.16 and does not create a claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy for an employee who is discharged while receiving workers’ compensation.”

In holding that there is no public policy claim for wrongful discharge under these circumstances, the Court also held that “R.C. 4123.90, (which prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for filing workers’ compensation claims) provides the exclusive remedy for employees claiming termination in violation of rights conferred by the Workers’ Compensation Act.” Under §4123.90 plaintiffs are required to meet certain procedural requirements in order to proceed with a claim. Additionally, under that statute, remedies are limited and there is no entitlement to a jury trial; both are positive characteristics as far as management is concerned.

What it means
This decision is a win for employers throughout the state. Employers are now permitted to terminate employees in accordance with uniformally applied non-discriminatory policies. The “Get Out of Jail Free Card” has been revoked!