Termination, Incomplete Photographic Evidence Point to Retaliation, Obstruction

Frank Ferreri

Minneapolis, MN (WorkersCompensation.com) – Giving an employee all the time off he’s entitled to might not be enough for an employer to show it stayed on the right side of workers’ compensation law.

For example, in Lieffring v. Prairieland Solid Waste Facility, No. 19-cv-02812 (D. Minn. 06/30/21), the court found that allegations about out-of-context photographs and the timing of an employee’s termination raised questions about whether the employer got in the way of his workers’ compensation rights.

Return to Work, Fall

A production worker for a county waste facility experienced an artery blockage that required emergency medical care and a lengthy hospitalization. When the worker was released from the hospital, his doctor imposed a 10-pound lifting restriction for six weeks. Because of the restriction, the facility wouldn’t allow the worker back on the job because he had to lift at least 35 pounds. In turn, his doctor released him to return to work with a 36-pound lifting restriction.

Several weeks later, while checking on trash compactors outside the building where he worked, the worker slipped and fell on a patch of ice, injuring his left shoulder. The worker sought treatment, and the facility filed a report with its workers’ compensation carrier.

About two weeks later, a supervisor met with the worker over concerns that he was bringing coffee into an area where it was not allowed and that he was leaving early, watching other employees work, and not performing his job. Following the meeting, the worker was suspended for two weeks.

Following the suspension, the worker was diagnosed with a complete rotator cuff injury, and he began receiving temporary total disability benefits. When the worker’s suspension expired, the supervisor refused to allow him to return to work “until he’s 100 percent,” and the facility allowed him to use accrued sick leave and vacation benefits to supplement his workers’ compensation benefits.

When the worker ran out of sick leave, the facility terminated him. After that, the facility’s carrier issued a notice of intention to discontinue workers’ compensation benefits. The carrier referenced photos taken by the supervisor shortly after the worker’s fall that reportedly showed footprints in the snow but no imprint of the worker’s fall. However, the photos the supervisor submitted did not depict the area between the trash compactors where the worker alleged he fell.

Obstruction, Retaliation

After prevailing in the workers’ compensation system when he contested the denial of benefits, the worker sued in court, claiming that the facility obstructed his workers’ compensation claim and retaliated against him.

Under Minnesota law, terminating or threatening to terminate some for seeking workers’ compensation benefits subjects an employer to damages. The court found that the worker adequately showed that the facility violated his workers’ compensation rights when it terminated him after his workplace injury.

Although the facility argued that the worker was terminated because he ran out of time off and couldn’t return to work, the court explained that a jury could decide that the facility terminated him because he exercised his workers’ compensation rights.

According to the court, it was “undisputed” that soon after the facility learned the worker had hurt himself on the job that it went through with the termination decision.

As a result, the worker’s case survived the facility’s efforts to have the court dismiss it.

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