Missouri Supreme Court Creates New Standard of Proof for Workers' Compensation Retaliation Cases

On April 15, 2014, the Supreme Court of Missouri issued its decision in Templemire v. W&M Welding, Inc., which changes the standard of proof that an employee must meet in order to state a claim for workers' compensation retaliation. Originally, John Templemire alleged that his employer, W&M Welding unlawfully retaliated against him by discharging him after he sought workers' compensation benefits. In such cases, the Court held that an employee must demonstrate that the filing of his workers' compensation claim was a "contributing factor" in the employee's discharge. This holding is a change from previous precedent holding employees to a more difficult
"exclusive causation" standard.

W&M Welding employed Templemire as a painter and general laborer beginning in October 2005. In January 2006, Templemire was injured in the course of his employment when a metal beam crushed his left foot. Templemire subsequently filed for, and received, workers' compensation benefits. As a consequence of the injury, Templemire underwent surgery, receiving both plating and screws in his foot. After surgery, Templemire was cleared to return to work with several restrictions. Templemire's physician instructed him to wear a boot on his left foot while at work and avoid climbing ladders. Additional restrictions were later added – Templemire was to avoid pushing, pulling, and standing longer than one hour without a fifteen-minute break. Because of these restrictions, W&M Welding assigned Templemire to light duty work. On November 29, 2006, Templemire was assigned to wash a railing. Before reaching the wash bay, Templemire stopped to rest his foot, which had become infected. During his break, W&M Welding's owner, Gary McMullin, approached Templemire and began to curse at him for having not completed his assignment. McMullin discharged Templemire effective immediately.

After he was fired, Templemire filed a lawsuit against W&M Welding alleging that it unlawfully discharged him in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. McMullin contended that when he visited Templemire to check on the progress of his work, Templemire told him he needed a break and that if he did not like it, he could take it up with his physician. McMullin testified that he then discharged Templemire for insubordination. Templemire proffered evidence that McMullin referred to other injured workers as "whiners" and testimonial evidence from other former employees who were criticized and/or discharged after filing for workers' compensation. Additionally, Templemire's immediate discharge was inconsistent with W&M Welding's progressive discipline policy.

Before this case, Missouri legal precedent demanded that an employee alleging retaliatory discharge prove that the filing of his workers' compensation claim was the exclusive factor in the employer's decision to discharge him. At trial, Templemire argued that the jury could find in his favor so long as the workers' compensation filing a contributing factor in the decision to discharge him – that is, Templemire would prevail even if W&M Welding had both lawful and unlawful reasons for its adverse employment decision. The Missouri Supreme Court ultimately agreed with Templemire, setting forth a new, lower causation standard for workers' compensation retaliation claims. In doing so, the Supreme Court brought the causation standard for workers' compensation retaliation claims in line with other similar types of discrimination claims under the Missouri Human Rights Act, which Missouri courts analyze under a contributing factor standard.

To be sure, an at-will employee may be lawfully discharged for any reason. But Missouri law has many exceptions to this general rule, in that an employee cannot be discharged for a number of reasons that are prohibited as a matter of public policy. For example, an employer may not discharge an employee for exercising his rights under the workers' compensation statute. While the statute makes clear that an employee must prove a causal relationship between the discharge and the exercise of the employee's rights, the statute does not provide the exact causal connection that must be proved. The Court had considered this issue before and declared that an employee must prove exclusive causation – that is, liability attached only when the workers' compensation claim was the sole basis for the discharge.

Templemire v. W&M Welding, Inc. provided the Court an opportunity to revisit the issue of the proper causation standard in this type of case. In doing so, the Court expressly overruled prior cases that originally established the "exclusive causation" standard. The Court emphasized that its earlier construction of the anti-retaliation statute was inconsistent with the policy of construing workers' compensation laws liberally to the benefit of employees. Moreover, the Court stated that an "exclusive causation" standard was wholly inconsistent with the plain language of the statute, and it adopted a "contributing factor" standard to be applied in such cases. That standard now aligns workers' compensation with other Missouri employment discrimination laws. As such, employees bringing a claim for retaliatory discharge now need only prove the protected activity (i.e., exercising one's rights under the workers' compensation statute) was a contributing factor in the discharge decision. In other words, employees may still prevail even if the employer also proffers one or more additional reasons for the discharge – so long as the workers' compensation activity was one of those reasons and was a "contributing factor" in the discharge. This new standard will substantially ease the burden on employees discharged for filing workers' compensation claims.