Alabama Supreme Court Reverses Court of Civil Appeals' Decision in Retaliatory Discharge Case
On June 28, 2013, the Supreme Court of Alabama released its opinion in the case of Ex parte Stanford D. Isbell, wherein it reversed the the Court of Civil Appeals which overturned a jury verdict in favor of Isbell in a retaliatory discharge lawsuit against his employer, M & J Materials, Inc. In February 2007, Isbell sued M & J for workers’ compensation benefits. His Complaint contained a claim for retaliatory discharge. The underlying worker’s compensation claim settled prior to trial, but the retaliatory discharge claim went to trial before a jury in Jefferson County, Alabama.
At trial, Isbell presented evidence that he had suffered an employment related injury to his right wrist on June 15, 2006 and promptly reported his injury. Isbell then underwent surgery and was placed at MMI in late November of 2006. On September 18, 2006, Isbell was terminated by M & J, allegedly for bringing a loaded firearm into M & J’s facility. There was no dispute as to whether Isbell actually brought the firearm into M & J’s facility, but the exact timing of that incident was disputed. Isbell claimed it happened in April before his workers’ compensation claim ever arose, while M & J alleged that it happened in late June 2006. it was Isbell’s position that his alleged violation of M & J’s firearm’s policy was pretextual and that the real reason he was terminated was because he had pursued a workers’ compensation claim. Isbell claimed that other employees had brought weapons into the facility on other occasions and had not been terminated, and that his termination for a violation of the firearms policy was discriminatory.
M & J moved for judgment as a matter of law at the close of evidence, but the trial court denied that motion. The trial court instructed the jury on the applicable law, and specifically instructed the jury that in order to award Isbell punitive damages, they must first award compensatory damages or nominal damages. The case then went to the jury, and they returned a verdict in favor of Isbell, awarding $0.00 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages. The attorneys for both parties and the Judge noted that the verdict was inconsistent. Before the jury was discharged, the judge recalled the jury and reminded it of its earlier instructions. The Jury then went back to deliberate and ultimately returned a verdict awarding Isbell $5,000.00 in compensatory damages and $70,000.00 in punitive damages. The trial court then entered judgment on that verdict, over M & J’s objection. M & J then appealed to the Supreme Court of Alabama. The Court transferred the appeal to the Court of Civil Appeals. On appeal, M & J argued that Isbell had failed to meet his prima facie burden for a retaliatory discharge claim; that the trial court erred in rejecting the jury’s first verdict; and that the trial court should have concluded that the punitive damages award was excessive.
The Court of Civil Appeals agreed with M & J that Isbell failed to present substantial evidence of termination of his employment based solely on his filing of a workers’ compensation claim. In regard to Isbell’s argument that the reason for his termination was pretextual, the Court of Appeals found that Isbell failed to show that M & J applied any policy against the possession of weapons in the work place in a discriminatory manner only to employees who have filed workers’ compensation claims, acted outside of company policy, or disavowed the reason given for Isbell’s discharge. The Court of Appeals then reversed the judgment entered on the jury verdict in favor of Isbell, and Isbell filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review whether the Court of Appeals failed to view the evidence in light most favorable to Isbell and whether the Court of Appeals misconstrued and misapplied applicable law in the course of reaching its conclusion.
In its review of the case, the Supreme Court noted that the case of Alabama Power v. Aldridge, 854 So. 2d 554 (Ala. 2002) was controlling on the issue of what an employee must prove to establish a prima facie case of retaliatory discharge. The Court in Aldridge held that the employee must show the existence of an employment relationship, an on the job injury, knowledge of the injury on the part of the employer, and subsequent termination of employment based solely upon the employee’s on-the-job injury and the filing of a worker’s compensation claim. The Supreme Court noted that an employee may provide circumstantial evidence of a causal connection between his filing of a workers’ compensation claim and his termination by showing: (1) knowledge of the claim by those making the decision to terminate; (2) expression of a negative attitude toward the employee’s injured condition; (3) failure to adhere to an established company policy; (4) discriminatory treatment in comparison to similarly situated employees; (5) sudden changes in the employee’s work performance evaluations following a workers’ compensation claim; and (6) evidence that the stated reason for the termination was false.
The Supreme Court found that Isbell presented evidence of several of those factors, thus establishing a prima facie case of retaliatory discharge. The Supreme Court noted that once Isbell established a prima facie case, the burden then shifted to M & J to come forward with evidence that Isbell was terminated for a legitimate reason, which they did. At that point, the burden shifted back to Isbell to prove that the reason given by M & J was not true, but was a pretext for an otherwise impermissible termination. The Supreme Court ruled that Isbell had in fact presented sufficient evidence to show that the violation of M & J’s firearm’s policy was pretextual by showing that several other employees who had brought firearms into the M & J plant on other occasions without being terminated. Additionally, other employees testified that they were not aware that M & J even had a specific policy prohibiting firearms in the plant. Finally, M & J failed to prove that Isbell was ever told that he could be fired for bringing a firearm into the plant. As such, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals to address whether the trial court erred when it re-instructed the jury after it returned an inconsistent verdict, and whether the punitive damages verdict was excessive.
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This article was written by Charley M. Drummond, Esq. of Fish Nelson, LLC. Fish Nelson is a law firm located in Birmingham, Alabama dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation cases and related liability matters. Drummond and his firm are members of The National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN). The NWCDN is a national and Canadian network of reputable law firms organized to provide employers and insurers access to the highest quality representation in workers’ compensation and related employer liability fields. If you have questions about this article or Alabama workers’ compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at email@example.com or (205) 332-3414.