Employee Cannot Be Dismissed for Absenteeism While Temporary Total
Coolidge v. Riverdale Local School Dist. (10/22/03), 100 Ohio St.3d 141, 2003-Ohio-5357.
Issue: Can an employer fire an injured worker for absenteeism when the injured worker missed work as a result of temporary total disability from an industrial injury?
Background: Coolidge worked as a teacher under a continuing contract. In October 1998, a student attacked her, resulting in serious injury. After Coolidge used up her assault leave and sick leave in May, 1999, her employer placed her on uncompensated leave. The employer had a policy permitting uncompensated leave for one school year.
In April, 2000, the school board voted to consider terminating Coolidge’s contract due to absenteeism. Coolidge requested a hearing pursuant to R.C. §3319.16.
Coolidge received temporary total disability compensation from the time of the injury through the time the school board voted to terminate her contract. She continued to receive temporary total through the date the hearing was held in August, 2000.
Nevertheless, the Referee at the hearing concluded that because Coolidge violated her teaching contract since she was absent for more than one year. The Referee held that there was no exception from the Board’s uncompensated leave policy for periods when an employee missed work due to temporary total disability resulting from a work-related injury.
In September, 2000, the Board voted to terminate Coolidge’s contract due to her continued absenteeism. Coolidge appealed that decision to the Hancock County Common Pleas Court.
The Common Pleas Court ruled in favor of Coolidge, and the School Board appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed and found that the School Board had properly dismissed Coolidge. The Court of Appeals’ decision did not address the fact that Coolidge had been receiving temporary total compensation.
Coolidge appealed to the Supreme Court.
Decision: Supreme Court unanimously reverses.
Coolidge was discharged pursuant to R.C. §3319.16. The Court states that a discharge contrary to public policy would be a discharge without just cause. Such a discharge without just cause would be contrary to the requirements of R.C. §3319.16.
The Court then examines whether discharging an employee for absenteeism while the employee is on temporary total disability is contrary to public policy.
Court finds it contrary to public policy to permit an employer to discharge an employee for absenteeism when the worker missed work as a result of being temporarily and totally disabled by an industrial injury.
The purpose of temporary total is to provide compensation for a period when the worker cannot work due to an industrial injury. The Court finds that it would be inconsistent with this purpose to permit the employer to fire an employee for suffering such a disability.
Editor’s Comment: While this case involved an employee operating under an employment contract, the Court’s reasoning actually addressed the issue of public policy. As a result, it applies to employees who are not employed pursuant to a contract but who are considered “employees at will.” Although an employer can usually fire an employee at will for any reason, an employer cannot fire an employee at will for a reason which violates public policy.