An employee filed for workers’ comp. Later, he was fired. He filed a lawsuit alleging retaliation because he filed for comp. But did he fulfill the requirement that he give his employer 90-days notice that he was going to file the lawsuit?
Keith Lawrence, an employee of the City of Youngstown, Ohio, was injured on the job. He filed for workers’ comp.
The city suspended Lawrence from his job on Jan. 7, 2007. Two days later, the city terminated his employment.
Youngstown prepared a letter, dated Jan. 9, 2007, telling Lawrence he was fired, effective on that date. The letter says copies were sent to various city offices and departments and to Lawrence’s union.
However, Lawrence says he didn’t receive word that he was fired until Feb. 19, 2007.
On April 17, 2007, his attorney sent a letter to the city advising it that Lawrence intended to file a lawsuit alleging unlawful workers’ comp retaliation. The city received the letter the next day.
After he filed his lawsuit, the city asked the court to throw out Lawrence’s claim because his written notice wasn’t sent within the required 90 days immediately following the discharge.
Lawrence argued that the clock shouldn’t start ticking until he learned he was fired on Feb. 19, 2007.
However, the trial court found Lawrence missed the 90-day window, and it threw out his lawsuit. An appeals court upheld that ruling, and then the case went to the Ohio Supreme Court.
The law is clear, but …
Ohio’s highest court noted the law specifically requires notice of a retaliation lawsuit be received by the employer “90 days immediately following the discharge.” It said it was clear the law refers to the discharge date and not the date the employee receives the notice.
But the court also noted that, normally, a company will use personal notification, hand delivery of notice or a certified letter to communicate a firing promptly. The court said the law implies employers have a responsibility to provide its employee notice of firing within a reasonable time after the discharge actually occurs to avoid impeding the employee’s 90-day notice obligation.
The method of notification is particularly important in workers’ comp cases, according to the court, because the employee may not be at work due to his injuries.
In Lawrence’s case, there was no evidence of face-to-face or other oral notification of the termination, and there is no indication the city sent the letter directly to the fired employee.
So, the court ruled, this case does require an exception to the otherwise clear law.
“In general, ‘discharge’ in [Ohio law] means the date that the employer issued the notice of employment termination, not the date of the employee’s receipt of that notice,” the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion states.
But in this case, the court recognized a very narrow exception because of the way the notice of termination was delivered. For that reason, the court refused to throw out Lawrence’s case and remanded it back to the lower court for more hearings.
The court took pains in several places within its opinion to state that this exception is very limited. “The 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.”
Did the court get this one right? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
(Lawrence v. Youngstown, Ohio Supreme Court, No. 2011-0621, 9/20/12) (PDF)