Judicial Protection of the Employment Relationship: The Broad Reach of the Workers’ Compensation Retaliation Prohibition

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently had the opportunity to assess the limits of a statute designed to protect employees – the prohibition on employer retaliation against employees for pursuing Workers’ Compensation claims. The Court seized upon the unique facts of Bermudez v. Dielectric, Inc., to preserve an employee’s right to sue for wrongful termination even where the employer was not the subject of the employee’s Workers’ Compensation claim.

In Bermudez, the plaintiff was an employee of a staffing company assigned to the defendant manufacturer Dielectric.  Following her injury at work, she successfully pursued a Workers’ Compensation claim against the staffing company, not Dielectric.  Once the plaintiff had recovered from her injury, she was hired to a full-time manufacturing position by Dielectric.

Eighteen months later, the plaintiff sued, naming as defendants Dielectric and the Dielectric employee that allegedly caused the original workplace injury. Shortly after, Dielectric fired the plaintiff.  In its termination notice, Dielectric stated “When you sued Dielectric after being compensated for your injury by workers’ compensation, we had little choice but to conclude that you don’t believe in the company and don’t have its best interests in mind.”

The plaintiff then sued Dielectric under the statute prohibiting retaliation against an employee for exercising her Workers’ Compensation rights even though the plaintiff had not exercised those rights against Dielectric. The trial court initially dismissed the wrongful termination claim, finding that the right to sue for negligence did not fall under the prohibition related to the Workers’ Compensation claim asserted against the earlier employer.

On appeal, the Court rejected that distinction and vacated the dismissal. In permitting the plaintiff’s termination claim to proceed, the Court found that a suit for negligence fit within the language found in the Workers’ Compensation statute that prohibited retaliation even if the defendant employer was not the subject of the Workers’ Compensation claim.

The Court noted that the Workers’ Compensation statute was “a remedial statute and should be given a broad interpretation, viewed in light of its purpose and to promote the accomplishment of its beneficent design.” In the Court’s eyes, that “beneficent design” dictated that an employee could accept employment and then sue her employer without repercussion.

While the facts of this situation are sufficiently unique that they are not likely to arise with the vast majority of employers, Bermudez presents an interesting case study about the extent to which courts may go to protect an employee from termination for reasons unrelated to performance.

About Rich Van Nostrand

Rich is a partner at the Firm. He has extensive experience in general civil trial work, with concentrations in business, commercial and employment litigation. He provides advice and representation in a variety of business and commercial litigation matters, including shareholder disputes, corporate dissolutions, intra- and inter-company disagreements, and intra-family business disputes. Rich also provides ongoing employment litigation and counseling services to numerous clients in the private, public and higher education sectors. In the private sector, Rich represents clients in a broad range of industries including health care, professional services, high technology, industrial and manufacturing. In addition, he is also frequently selected by litigants to assist in the resolution of their disputes as an independent arbitrator or mediator.
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