An employee was told since he wanted to file for workers’ comp, he had to take a drug test. He refused, and the company fired him. Was the firing retaliation for filing for workers’ comp?
Jeff Phillips worked at the Continental Tire manufacturing facility in Mt. Vernon, IL. In April 2010, he visited the facility’s health service department to report that his fingers went numb at work and to file a workers’ comp claim.
Continental had a written substance abuse policy that required drug testing in seven different situations, one of which was “initiation of workers’ compensation claim.”
The policy stated:
“Refusal to submit to testing will be cause for immediate suspension pending termination.”
An injured worker could receive treatment at the health service department and return to work if he wasn’t filing for workers’ comp and the injury wasn’t OSHA-recordable.
After being informed that he faced being fired, Phillips still refused because he didn’t think it should be necessary to take a drug test when filing for workers’ comp.
Sure enough, Phillips was fired for refusing to submit to drug testing when filing a workers’ comp claim. His discharge letter said he was fired for violating the company’s substance abuse policy.
Phillips sued, alleging Continental retaliated against him for seeking workers’ comp benefits.
Continental asked for summary judgment from a U.S. district court. The court granted the request, effectively throwing out Phillips’ lawsuit. Next, he took his case to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
He said it himself
The appeals court noted that, during a deposition, when asked why he was fired, Phillips said it was because he refused to take a drug test.
“The undisputed facts — including Phillips’ own deposition testimony — establish that [Continental] terminated Phillips because he refused to take a drug test upon initiation of a workers’ compensation claim as required by [company] policy,” the court noted in its opinion.
The court also took into consideration that:
- Other Continental employees had initiated workers’ comp claims and weren’t fired, and
- Phillips himself had filed a workers’ comp claim previously and not been fired.
Nevertheless, Phillips still had arguments against Continental’s drug testing policy:
- He argued the policy discourages employees from filing workers’ comp claims, and
- The policy treated similarly injured employees differently based solely on whether they sought workers’ comp.
However, Phillips wasn’t able to identify anyone who had been discouraged from filing a workers’ comp claim at Continental (as noted, he had filed one previously).
And the court said filing for workers’ comp wasn’t the only situation in which Continental employees might face a drug test, so the company wasn’t singling out employees filing for workers’ comp.
For those reasons, the court ruled Phillips was fired because of his refusal to take the mandatory drug test, not in retaliation for filing for workers’ comp. His lawsuit was thrown out.
And a side note: Phillips did eventually receive workers’ comp benefits.
What do you think about the outcome of this case? Let us know in the comments.
(Jeff Phillips v. Continental Tire The Americas LLC, U.S. Circuit Crt.7, No. 13-2199, 2/14/14)