School liability in terminations relating to workers’ compensation

Workers’ compensation protections are some of the most important laws for helping people who are injured or have contracted an occupational illness at work. If an injury or illness is covered by workers’ compensation, then the employer is responsible for the medical costs, payment for days missed at work, and potentially even monetary payments if the injury leads to permanent disabilities. However, even though virtually all districts carry workers’ compensation insurance, some of them will take steps to try to minimize the number of claims employees make. This can even rise to the level of terminating individuals to prevent them from filing claims or to retaliate against them for filing claims. Missouri statutes on workers’ compensation provide for protection from such retaliatory discharge, and a recent decision against the Independence School District has clarified the potential liability for school districts.

In the lawsuit, Poke vs. Independence School District, a custodian injured himself while attempting to fold a cafeteria table. Initially, the custodian tried to work through the pain, but the injury seemed to get worse over the following weeks, so he notified his supervisor that he needed to seek medical attention. The custodian filed a workers’ compensation claim and then, after some disputes related to the treatment, the custodian was terminated. The custodian then filed suit claiming that the termination was in retaliation for his workers’ compensation claim.

The case before the court specifically focused on the district’s response to the lawsuit. The district claimed that it could not be held liable, even if it had retaliatorily terminated the custodian, because of a legal theory called “sovereign immunity.” Sovereign immunity is the idea that the government, and public institutions created by the government, can only be sued by the public to the extent that the government allows. This means that the general rule is that the government cannot be sued for anything unless there is a specific law or statute that allows for such a lawsuit. There are several statutes where the government has consented to be sued, such as anti-discrimination or harassment laws and premises liability, but the question in this case was whether this consent included workers’ compensation claims.

The court focused on the history of workers’ compensation law in Missouri in making a finding that the school district could be sued for claims of retaliatory discharge. When workers’ compensation was first created in Missouri, it applied only to individuals who were employed in the private sector. In 1969, the legislature created a subsection of the law that allowed the state to opt into workers’ compensation protections for employees, while still being protected from legal liability. Finally, in 1974, the legislature modified the workers’ compensation statutes to mandate public employers participate in the system, but it did not delete the language created in 1969. The question then became whether the 1969 protection from liability was still in place or if the general workers’ compensation protection against retaliatory discharge controlled.

The court in Polk was able to somewhat sidestep the issue by focusing on the specific language of the 1969 statute. That law explicitly covers individuals employed “by the state.” Technically, school districts are not the “state” but are instead considered “political subdivisions” of the state. Therefore, the court held that public education employees are indeed protected by the workers’ compensation laws and can bring lawsuits for retaliatory discharge. The custodian is now able to proceed with a lawsuit seeking not only reinstatement but also monetary damages for his termination.

Workers’ compensation situations can be very complicated. Individuals find themselves trying to deal with the professional and personal implications of an injury, all while attempting to seek treatment for the injury itself. Add to that concerns that your employer may act negatively when notified of an injury, and you can find yourself in a high-stress situation. Therefore, if you are injured at work, contact your UniServ director immediately for help in ensuring that you get all of the protections and benefits of the workers’ compensation process.

By Vincenzo Iuppa, MNEA Associate General Counsel

SB, Winter 2021