Employees who are injured while on the job in Florida are generally entitled to receive workers’ compensation benefits via their employer. However, injured employees are sometimes reluctant to file for workers’ compensation because they fear that if they seek benefits their employer will fire them in retaliation. Generally speaking, employer-employee relationships in Florida are governed by the traditional “at-will” employment doctrine. This doctrine holds that either the employer or the employee may lawfully terminate the employment relationship at any time. While the at-will employment doctrine holds true in almost every employment situation, there are a few notable exceptions in Florida that the legislature has carved out in the name of public policy. One of these exceptions is contained within the Florida Workers’ Compensation Act and prohibits employers from firing, or threatening to fire, employees for claiming workers’ compensation benefits. This exception is referred to as Florida’s workers’ compensation retaliation statute.
Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Retaliation Statute
Florida’s workers’ compensation retaliation statute is contained in section 440.205 of the Florida Statutes and states 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 Workers’ Compensation Law.”
If an employer in Florida violates this statute the injured employee can file a lawsuit claiming that the employer unlawfully engaged in workers’ compensation retaliation. However, injured employees should note that while Florida’s retaliation statute makes it illegal for employers to fire employees for seeking workers’ compensation benefits, the statute does not require employers to reserve an injured employee’s job while he or she takes time off from work to recuperate. In other words, in order to win their retaliation case the injured employee must have been fired, or threatened with termination, because they filed for workers’ compensation benefits. However, plaintiffs who are ultimately able to prove their workers’ compensation retaliation case can recover a variety of different damages, dependent on the circumstances of the case, including lost earning capacity, medical benefits, and lost wages.
Proving that Retaliation Occurred In Florida: Three Elements
Proving that an employer engaged in workers’ compensation retaliation can be extremely difficult, but is by no means impossible. In order to win a retaliation case in Florida the injured employee must be able to prove all three of the elements listed below, which the court explained in the landmark case Russell v. KSL Hotel Corp.:
Element 1 — He or She Engaged in a Statutorily Protected Activity: Filing for workers’ compensation benefits is a statutorily protected activity under Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Act. Therefore, if an injured employee can simply show that he or she filed for workers’ compensation benefits then this first element will be satisfied.
Element 2 — He or She Suffered an Adverse Employment Action: As the retaliation statute outlined above notes, there are a number of different ways in which an employer can engage in illegal retaliation against an employee. In order to satisfy this element the injured employer simply needs to show that they suffered an adverse employment action. For example, the injured employee can satisfy this element by providing evidence showing that they were fired.
Element 3 — There is a Causal Connection Between the Adverse Action and the Protected Activity: In order to show that there is a causal connection between the injured employee filing a workers’ compensation claim and the resulting adverse employment action, the employee must show that the employer knew that that the employee was seeking workers’ compensation benefits and terminated, or threatened to terminate, the employee because of this knowledge.
How Can Employers Defend Against Claims of Retaliation?
After an injured employee argues in court that their employer unlawfully retaliated against them for filing for workers’ compensation benefits, the employer is then given an opportunity to explain why the employee was fired, or suffered some other adverse employment action. In order to defeat the employee’s retaliation claim, the employer must provide a legitimate and non-retaliatory justification for their actions. For example, an employer may be able to show that an injured employee’s job was eliminated due to budget cuts, rather than to punish the employee for seeking workers’ compensation. Essentially the employer has to show that they would have taken the same adverse employment action against the employee regardless of whether or not the employee filed for workers’ compensation benefits. The book Understanding and Preventing Workplace Retaliation provides the following list of evidence that employers often find helpful when attempting to show that they had a legitimate reason for firing an injured employee. Helpful evidence includes:
Examples of other employees who were also fired, but who did not file for workers’ compensation benefits,
Evidence of disciplinary procedures or performance concerns involving the injured worker that occurred before he or she filed for workers’ compensation, and
Evidence showing that the employer holds all employees to the same workplace rules or standards, regardless of who has filed for workers’ compensation.
If the employer succeeds in providing a legal justification for their actions, then the employee is given the opportunity to show that the employer’s justification is in fact a pretext. If the court agrees that the employer’s alleged justification is nothing more than a pretext, then the injured employee will win the retaliation case. If not, then the employer will be off the hook.
Need Legal Advice?
If you believe that you were fired in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim consider filing a retaliation lawsuit without delay. Even if you aren’t completely sure whether or not your employer’s actions legally constitute retaliation in Florida, contact the experienced Florida workers’ compensation lawyers at Farah & Farah to discuss whether or not you have a case during a free initial consultation. Our firm is committed to working tirelessly to protect our clients’ rights and to holding employers in Florida accountable for their legal obligations to their employees. Call our office today.