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Workers’ compensation retaliation claims are rare birds in New Jersey, and the case ofRobinson v. Armadillo Automation, Inc. explains the standard for proving such cases. Spencer Robinson worked as a valve technician from May 2005 until August 2011. He alleged that when he was hired, he disclosed a prior low back condition, and he requested a stool to work while seated, a request which he said the company obliged. The defendant disputed almost everything Robinson asserted, including that Robinson disclosed a prior condition. The company asserted that in March 2011 it noticed Robinson was having problems standing and gave him a stool to use but not in 2005.
On April 29, 2011, Robinson felt pain in his neck while assembling a valve. He said he reported the injury to the company vice president. Robinson alleged that the VP refused to consider this an injury and would not take him to a doctor. So Robinson got treatment from two doctors on his own and presented a full release from his doctor effective May 12, 2011. Company records did show that the work injury was reported to the carrier.
Defendants denied ever refusing to take him to the hospital, saying the company approved plaintiff’s seeing the family doctor. The company also maintained that when Robinson returned to work in June 2011, he was having great difficulty standing and working on incoming valve orders. The President of the company asked Robinson to get an evaluation with his primary care doctor as to his fitness for duty. The company claimed that Robinson never produced the family doctor clearance note. The company also claimed that plaintiff’s production was dropping sharply.
For his part Robinson said that the company threatened for the first time to take away his stool when plaintiff tried to return to work after his work incident. Plaintiff also argued that after his work injury, the company president and vice president complimented him on how hard-working he was. He further averred that the company president and vice president spoke with him about retirement possibilities for the first time after his injury. Plaintiff further claimed that he got a note from the family doctor which the company refused to honor because they wanted to speak with the doctor. Robinson said he then signed a release permitting the company to speak directly to the family doctor, but that never happened. One fact that does not appear to be disputed in this case is that Robinson had not been written up during his employment until he failed to clock out in June 2011. The company advised plaintiff that his production had fallen off and that the company was observing Robinson’s problems on the job. The company also maintained that Robinson failed to clock out at lunch time six times. For his part, Robinson said that the clock out rule was not strictly maintained and the clock was not even working well. He admitted to not clocking out at lunch only one time.
Although virtually every statement in this case was disputed, one thing not in dispute was that the company did not give Robinson a raise on his anniversary date of May 28, 2011; he was suspended for five days on August 1, 2011; and then fired for declining productivity, failing to punch out at lunch, and failure to get a medical clearance note.
Robinson sued alleging that he was retaliated against due to filing a workers’ compensation claim. The trial court granted the employer summary judgment but the Appellate Division reversed. The Court adopted the McDonnell Douglas rule in a retaliation law suit requiring plaintiff to prove 1) membership in a protected class; 2) actual performance prior to termination; 3) termination from employment; and 4) the employer’s pursuit of someone to perform the same work after his termination. On the last point, plaintiff alleged that the company hired two people after he was terminated.
The employer gave non-discriminatory reasons for terminating Robinson, including poor performance, lack of productivity, failure to clock out and failure to get medical clearance. Robinson in turn argued that these were all pretextual. He argued that his production never dropped after he returned to work even though the company tried to take away his stool. He pointed out that he had never been disciplined until after he filed the workers’ compensation claim. He claimed he had gotten a note from his family physician and had not repeatedly failed to clock out at lunch. His contention was that the company simply retaliated against him for filing a workers’ compensation claim.
Given the dispute in facts, the Court held that plaintiff had offered sufficient proofs to get to a jury. “If plaintiff’s proofs are believed at trial, reasonable jurors can readily disbelieve defendants’ stated reasons for the adverse employment actions.” The case shows how problematic retaliation cases can be where the employer has no documentation or record of discipline before the work injury. Further, the company could have easily gotten its own fitness-for-duty examination in this case rather than debate whether the family doctor would approve plaintiff’s return to work. This was a small company with 30 employees and perhaps that explains why so little of what took place was documented in memoranda or letters, but clearly the absence of any documentation hurt the employer.
This case can be found at Robinson v. Armadillo Automation, Inc., A05927-13T3(App. Div. July 20, 2016).
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.