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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
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Appellate Court Reinstates Workers’ Compensation Retaliation Case

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In order to punish employers who retaliate against employees who suffer an injury at work and make or attempt to make a workers’ compensation claim, the Florida Legislature enacted section 440.205, Florida Statutes.  Section 440.205 provides that “no employer shall discharge, threaten to discharge, intimidate, or coerce any employee by reason of such employee’s valid claim for compensation or attempt to claim compensation under the Florida Workers’ Compensation Law.”  A recent decision by the Florida Second District Court of Appeal (Second DCA), Atha v. Allen P. Van Overbeke, D.M.D., P.A., — So.3d –, 2017 WL 945530 (Fla. 2d DCA March 10, 2017), illustrates the types of evidence that can be used to prove a workers’ compensation retaliation claim under section 440.205.   

Employer’s Negative Attitude Towards Employee’s Claim

In that case, Julie Atha (Atha) brought a lawsuit alleging that her employer violated section 440.205 by reducing her hours and terminating her employment in retaliation for making a workers’ compensation claim.  Atha began working for Allen P. Van Overbeke, D.M.D., P.A. (Van Overbeke) as a dental assistant in 2009.  On November 21, 2012, Atha suffered an injury to her right hand and elbow at work.  Atha made a claim for workers’ compensation benefits by requesting medical treatment for her work-related injury.  On November 27, 2012, Van Overbeke’s insurance carrier authorized medical treatment for Atha’s work-related injury.  On February 18, 2013, Atha had surgery for her work-related injury.  Atha received temporary disability benefits under the Florida Workers’ Compensation Law from the date of her surgery until her recovery.  On June 6, 2013, Atha’s doctor released her to return to full-time work as a dental assistant.  However, Van Overbeke refused to restore Atha to full-time status and offered her only one shift per week despite having work available that she could perform.  Three weeks later, Van Overbeke terminated Atha’s employment.  The trial court held that Atha failed to state a prima facie case of workers’ compensation retaliation and dismissed her case.  On appeal, the Second DCA reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated Atha’s lawsuit.

At the outset of its opinion, the Second DCA explained that in order to establish a prima facie case of workers’ compensation retaliation under section 440.205, the employee must prove the following elements:  (1) a statutorily protected activity; (2) an adverse employment action; and (3) a causal connection between the statutorily protected activity and the adverse employment action.  The Second DCA found that Atha engaged in statutorily protected by making a workers’ compensation claim and suffered adverse employment actions in the form of reduction in hours and termination.  Turning to the contested third element of a prima face case, the Second DCA noted that Atha could establish the causal connection element by “showing the protected activity and the adverse employment action are not completely unrelated.”  In finding that Atha allegations were sufficient to establish that the workers’ compensation claim and the adverse employment actions were not completely unrelated, the Second DCA pointed to allegations showing that Van Overbeke “demonstrated a negative attitude toward Atha’s workers’ compensation claim” by reducing her hours immediately after she was released to return to work full-time despite having work available for her to perform and then terminating her employment three weeks later.  In other words, the Second DCA reasoned, Van Overbeke’s reduction of Atha’s hours directly on the heels of her release to return to full-time work was sufficient to establish the requisite causal connection element because it evidenced a “negative attitude towards” her workers’ compensation claim.             

Retaliatory Motive After Employee Released To Return To Work

The Second DCA’s decision in Atha illustrates there is a broad array of evidence that can be used to prove workers’ compensation retaliation claim under section 440.205.  One way to prove workers’ compensation retaliation claim is by showing a short passage of time from when the employee made a workers’ compensation claim and the termination.  For example, when an employee is fired one month after getting hurt at work and making a workers’ compensation claim, the close temporal proximity between the workers’ compensation claim and the discharge is evidence of a retaliatory motive or a “negative attitude” towards the employee’s workers’ compensation claim.  However, as Atha demonstrates, temporal proximity evidence is not limited to the elapse of time between the employee’s workers’ compensation claim and the termination.  Rather, as in Atha, evidence that the employer subjected the employee to an adverse employment action, such as a reduction in hours, shortly after he or she was released to return to full-time work is also evidence of a retaliatory motive or a “negative attitude” towards the employee’s workers’ compensation claim.  The employer’s retaliatory motive or “negative attitude” can be used to establish the requisite causal connection element of a prima facie case and ultimately to prove that the employee was terminated in retaliation for making or attempting to make a workers’ compensation claim.

Consultation With Employment Law Attorney   

We have extensive experience representing employees who have been retaliated against for suffering an injury at work and making or attempting to make a workers’ compensation claim.  If you believe that you have been retaliated for making or attempting to make a workers’ compensation claim, or have questions regarding your employee rights after making or attempting to make a workers’ compensation claim, please contact our office for a free consultation.

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